M. Burton Drexler was born on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge, in New York. One of his first memories was going into Manhattan with his parents to see a Broadway play. When he was only a few years older, he would walk by himself across the Brooklyn Bridge with just enough money in his pocket to buy an inexpensive balcony seat to see a performance of something that interested him. He saw the original casts in “The Glass Menagerie” and “Oklahoma!” among many others.
He was attending Johns Hopkins studying to become a M.D. when World War II broke out and he joined the Navy. He was stationed in California to give medical assistance to those soldiers returning from combat. After the war was over, he parents expected him to return to Johns Hopkins to continue his education in medicine; he met half of those expectations. He returned to Johns Hopkins, but decided that the life of an M.D. was not for him. He was, he would tell his friends, fine in the O.R. when everything was clean and tidy, but he could not take the E.R. when people arrived in terrible condition, covered in blood, and had to have immediately assistance after a terrible accident.
He had been interested in theatre since his boyhood and decided after the war that he would change his career path and ultimately the rest of his life. His mother did not speak to him for many months after he told her of his plans.
During the summers he began working at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village and described how the residents would sit on the steps of the brownstones reading or watching people passing by until a tour bus would appear and then everyone would “put on a show to shock the tourists.” It was while he was there that he worked in the light booth for a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and he would tell of how, if there was nothing to do in the booth for a time, he would close his eyes so he could better concentrate on the great beauty and poetry of the dialogue.
When Burt graduated with his M.A. from Johns Hopkins in 1951, he began looking for a job. He thought it would be great fun to drive his new car around the country, see the sights and interview at the same time. One place he applied was Iowa State College where he was asked to come for an interview. On his travels he eventually came to Ames and interviewed at Iowa State. It all went very well; he was offered a job about 1:00 in the afternoon, but then he was told he would have to decide that same day by 5:00 p.m. whether he wanted the position or not. He had other interviews scheduled and expected to have more time to decide, but by 5:00 he cancelled the other interviews and took the job. That was in 1952; he intended to stay for only a few years and then move on; he remained at Iowa State until his retirement.
Just because he was now living in the middle of the country did not mean that he stopped seeing Broadway theatre. At least once a year he would go to New York for two weeks and in that length of time usually managed to see everything that had opened since the last time he was there. He would write his reviews of the performances he had seen in his “Drexler Report” where he gave his honest opinions such as “mediocre at best” to “a must-see.” His assessments were always his own; it didn’t matter what a professional critic might say. He had been the theatre critic for the Johns Hopkins student paper and still enjoyed the examination of his own evaluations and opinions.
One of his great loves was Shakespeare and he was adamant that Shakespeare himself had written the works attributed to him. He would always give as proof that Ben Johnson, who knew Shakespeare, had written a poem on Shakespeare’s death which was titled “The Memory of my Beloved Master William Shakespeare” and contained the lines “Soul of the age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage, My SHAKESPEARE, rise!” That ended the discussion!
He had other interests than theatre and his collections of beautiful objects were impressive—Wedgewood, Netsuke, and Russian enamels from the time of the czars—all of the highest quality and of great artistic worth.
Burt did not only value beautiful objects; he valued his family as well. After his mother died, he asked his father, who by that time was blind, to move in with him. Even though that action curtailed his own enjoyment of travel, the two lived together for several years with the son providing the very best, personal care. It was not until after his father’s death that Burt began adding London to his yearly trips to see great theatre.
If there was ever a question regarding the history of theatre, Dr. Drexler could answer it; if there was ever a friend in need, Dr. Drexler would be the first to respond; if there was ever a true scholar with a passion for live performance, Dr. Drexler was at the top of the list.
Thank you, Burt Drexler, for your support, loyalty, devotion, and kindness to those in the world of theatre.