Robert Moss looks as if he could start another theater company tomorrow.
Trim, charming and full of energy, the fast-talking Moss at 80 still has the skill-set to seize an opportunity, hustle a deal and make things happen just as he did in the 1970s when he founded off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. He was also a pivotal figure in the remaking of 42nd Street, turning the seedy strip of porn theaters, hookers and drug addicts into a theater mecca that also transformed a neighborhood and boosted the spirit of a city.
"He was the Neil Armstrong planting his not-for-profit flag on the moon," said the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein in the book "The Ghosts of 42nd Street" that chronicles the history decade-by-decade of that famed thoroughfare through a singular figure.
The Newark-born Moss may be years past founding and heading theaters in New York, such as those he ran in Queens (Queens Theater in the Park), Ithica (Hangar Theater) and Syracuse (Syracuse Stage) but he's still expanding playwrights' horizons — and audiences', too — as a freelance director.
In Connecticut, he's now staging the new three-actor song-and-dance musical, "Fingers and Toes", which begins performances Wednesday at the Ivoryton Playhouse, in the Ivoryton section of Essex.
"Very heady times," he says when asked about the formation of Playwrights Horizons, one of the most influential theaters in the off-Broadway and regional theater movement more than 40 years ago — as well as the transformation of 42nd Street.
Moss began Playwrights Horizons in 1971 when he found free space at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts at the YMCA branch at 51st Street and Eighth Avenue. Three years later, he moved the theater company to then-derelict West 42nd Street at the site of a former house of burlesque.
"Nobody got paid," says Moss, who was notable for passing around a big white bag in the audience asking for donations.
Moss only intended to stay there for a few months but when he discovered that audiences didn't seem phased by the neighborhood's denizens, he secured a long-term lease the day after he opened.
And the day after that? He founded the "42nd Street Gang"corporation with the purpose "to acquire these deteriorating spaces and turn them into working theaters again. I knew there were little theater companies all around town looking for places so maybe they could do what we did which is to transform a space into a theater."
Moss saw the potential of the area. "Despite the surroundings we were in the middle of 42nd Street in New York City which is the center of the world."
But an even more significant turn came quickly after was when Moss met millionaire civic activist Fred Papert, who was planning on reviving the street and begin by razing his block.
"I told him I had a better idea and to his eternal credit he bought it," says Moss.
The Gang, along with the new 42nd Street Development Corporation, joined forces and spearheaded the renovation and creation of 42nd Street's Theatre Row.
"He had clout," says Moss, "and could go to the absolute [heights] of power — which I could not do. As the person who helped save Grand Central Station, Fred could go with Mrs. [Jackie Kennedy] Onassis on his arm."
The times were hospitable to artistic visionaries. "[Governor Nelson] Rockefeller just doubled the arts budget from $18 million to $36 million. The city, the state and the federal government all came together on the project and the foundation world — especially the Ford Foundation — was brand new with young people leading them. It wasn't all codified the way it is now. It was like the Wild West where I could call up a [foundation head] and say I need $5,000 today. It was crazy. But all of that money isn't around anymore."
Of that period in theater creation, Moss says "there was a spirit in the land coming out of the '60s where people gave themselves to worthy projects. We were on unemployment half of every year in the beginning and there were plenty of times we ran out of money and we'd have to say, 'OK, no more salaries' and nobody left — nobody. Now if you told someone they wouldn't be paid, they'd be out the door before you could finish the sentence."
During the '70s Moss saw the not-for-profit movement and his own organization mature. "We grew up. At first I was doing 30 plays a year, 15 in full production and 15 workshops but I found the only way to get better was to do less, pay more attention and become more professional," says Moss who began his career as a production stage manager at the APA Repertory Company.
Moss produced new plays by more than 150 American writers, including Wasserstein, James Lapine, Albert Innaurato, William Finn and Ted Tally until 1981 when he says he just felt burned out.