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Remembering the late Michael Butler, who produced ‘Hair,’ dated Audrey Hepburn and was pals with JFK and Jagger

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/29/2022 Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
Michael Butler attends a World Wildlife Fund benefit held at the Oak Brook Polo Club on Sept. 24, 1984, in Oak Brook, Illinois. © Ernie Cox Jr./Chicago Tribune/TNS Michael Butler attends a World Wildlife Fund benefit held at the Oak Brook Polo Club on Sept. 24, 1984, in Oak Brook, Illinois.

CHICAGO — The 95-year-long life of Michael Butler, which ended on Nov. 7 at a nursing home in California was the stuff of legend and adjectives.

Among those that attached to him over the decades were industrialist, athlete, millionaire hippie, politician and playboy. The one most likely to stick for keeps is that of producer, for it was he who helped mold and nurture “Hair” into one of the most successful and era-defining musicals of the 20th century.

He was born in Chicago on Nov. 26, 1926, the son of prominent socialites Paul Butler and Marjorie von Stresenreuter Childress. His father was the heir to a paper company fortune and an active real estate developer and polo enthusiast. Michael and his siblings grew up in rural opulence on a farm called Natoma in what would later become Oak Brook. He often talked dreamily of a childhood spent horse jumping, fox hunting and playing polo. “It was Camelot,” he would say.

He attended various high schools and colleges, toying with becoming an architect but was easily distracted by less academic pursuits. He eventually came home and entered the family business. As a 22-year-old trainee, he set a company sales record before transferring to the European division.

Handsome and dashing, he would have three wives, one child, a boy named Adam, and an incalculable number of flashy romances, with such beauties as Audrey Hepburn and Candice Bergen. He had hundreds of friends — once getting high with Mick Jagger and playing polo with who would later become King Charles — and among them was Arnie Morton, with whom he played tennis in the mid-1990s.

“He’s a pretty good player,” Morton said in 1996. “We just started playing together about two years ago. We pretty much break even, though I’m a lot older than he is.” The then 74-year-old Morton, whose colorful life included running the Playboy Club empire and creating his own restaurants and clubs, paused to laugh. “He’s a sweet guy. He’s just a plain, sweet, nice guy. There’s nothing about him that would give you any hint about how rich he was or the life he lived.”

Michael Butler, producer of the musical“ Hair,” in his Oak Brook, Illinois, home on Oct. 12, 1988. © Jose Moré/Chicago Tribune/TNS Michael Butler, producer of the musical“ Hair,” in his Oak Brook, Illinois, home on Oct. 12, 1988.

But some hints were to be found where Butler then lived, in a small loft apartment in a building on the banks of the Chicago River. It had been six years since a life-altering bankruptcy and the subsequent auction and garage sale that ended his live-in relationship with Oak Brook, which was created and developed by his father, and of which he was the most famous and flamboyant resident.

His apartment was cluttered with artifacts, photos and art. Out the windows, which faced west, was a gritty cityscape of gray buildings and a quilt of railroad tracks. “It’s like having a toy train set,” he said.

There were dozens of photos in the apartment, one prominently placed was of his friend President John F. Kennedy, taken during a 1958 sailing trip on the French Riviera. “Jack was a marvelous man and I loved Jackie, though she hated me at first, thinking that I was leading Jack astray,” Butler told me. “Later we became very close, once she realized it was Jack who was leading me astray.”

He would serve as an informal adviser to JFK on Middle Eastern and Indian matters and Bobby Kennedy asked him to help Gov. Otto Kerner’s 1964 reelection campaign. Kerner won and gave Butler posts on the Illinois Sports Council and the Organization For the Economic Development of Illinois. He was also a founding chancellor of the Lincoln Academy and the commissioner of the Port of Chicago.

Butler made an unsuccessful run for the Illinois Senate and was later contemplating a run against Illinois’ gravel-voiced senator, Everett Dirksen. But while in New York on business, he was thumbing through a newspaper when his eye fell on an advertisement for a play being presented by Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival: “Hair (The American Tribal Love Rock Musical).”

“I thought it was about American Indians,” he told me. “I went to see the play and was blown away. It was the strongest anti-war statement I had ever seen. I met with Papp and asked him to bring the show to Illinois, but he wasn’t into that.”

But Papp was into forming a partnership with Butler. After their co-production at a New York disco called the Cheetah bombed, Butler bought Papp out, reworked the show’s book, added the famous nude scene and wrote a more upbeat ending.

“Hair” opened at the Biltmore Theater on Broadway in April 1968, and it blew a lot of people away. It would eventually run for 1,742 performances, spawning dozens of other productions in cities across the world. Butler was an attentive and involved producer, visiting and helping oversee almost every city’s production. “I felt responsible for each tribe,” he said.

A few times he appeared on stage, once in Los Angeles painted from head to foot in silver and wearing an Indian headdress, and a couple of times he joined the San Francisco cast for the show’s nude scene. “It was no big deal, the nude scene in San Francisco,” he told me. “I was living with two of the cast members.”

Flush with “Hair” cash — it’s estimated that Butler made more than $10 million from the show — he careened through the 1970s. There were parties and more parties; polo and more polo; private planes and a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. He spent most of his time living and entertaining in a mansion on 150 acres outside of London.

He donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to liberal causes and backed all sorts of ventures. Some, like the play “Lenny,” worked. Many others — discos, roller rinks, a professional soccer team, rock bands — did not. He thought he had another “Hair” on his hands with a show called “Reggae,” which he described at the time as a “Caribbean version of ‘South Pacific’ with religious overtones,” but it opened on Broadway in 1980 and closed after a brief run. That, coupled with the savage reception of the release of the long-delayed movie version of “Hair,” compelled Butler to retreat to Oak Brook.

But his father died in 1981 and all manner of legal battles ensued, some of them between Michael Butler and his siblings and other parties. It was an emotionally and financially exhausting time and there was very little left when it was over. “From a financial viewpoint it was tough,” he told me. “I moved to a lifestyle that isn’t one-tenth what it once was. But I learned how many really good friends I had.”

His son Adam, who had once been a professional polo player and manager of polo clubs, was in the early 1990s selling insurance. He previously told me, “I don’t feel Dad let me down. Maybe he didn’t discuss financial details as fully as I might have liked ... but I love and respect my dad. He always treated me like a human being. He was very open with me. In a family with this sort of stature, it would be easy to lose intimacy. We never did. He’s a great man to me.”

Michael Butler managed for many years the Oak Brook Polo Club and into the 1990s and beyond spent much of his time as what he called a “rainmaker,” setting up deals among his worldwide network of friends. He produced a musical, “Pope Joan,” at the Mercury Theater. He was involved with the Amsterdam-based DogTroep theater. He was constantly reading scripts and talking deals.

And always there was “Hair.” He had produced a flashy revival at The Vic theater in 1988 and told me at the time, “I am as happy and free as I’ve ever been. I have learned a lot about myself and other people in the last few years. What do I want? I want one of these days to spend some time in the Himalayas. I’ve never been there. I think I might like it.”


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