Brian Nebenzahl, the founder and retired Chairman of Playbill, has died aged 86. He passed away peacefully in Sydney on Sunday 12 September.

Born in Poland on 23 October 1934, Nebenzahl’s family migrated to Australia when he was four. During his school years at The Scots College in Sydney, he became good friends with Lance Peters and Lloyd Martin, whose father, David Martin, ran the Tivoli circuit.

Michael and Brian Nebenzahl

Brian Nebenzahl (right) with his son Michael Nebenzahl at Playbill’s 60th anniversary event at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion. Photo supplied

Nebenzahl began his career selling cinema advertising, but in 1958 he and Peters approached Lloyd Martin, who was then the advertising manager at the Tivoli, to ask if they could publish and sell the Tivoli program. Martin gave them the go-ahead, and Playbill was born.

Next, they began making theatre programs for JC Williamson’s. Before long Playbill would become Australia’s leading performing arts program publishers and merchandise operators, transforming the sector.

Nebenzahl married his wife Jocelyn Nebenzahl in 1957 and for over 60 years they worked together producing souvenir programs and merchandise for virtually all the major commercial musicals to tour Australia, as well as for other touring shows and events. They also produced programs for many of Australia’s leading arts organisations including Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, Musica Viva, The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre.

With the support of their son Michael, who became the CEO of Playbill, they gradually expanded Playbill’s programming and merchandise operations into a global business operating in ten countries, taking in the West End and Broadway.

Nebenzahl also created an advertising agency dedicated to entertainment, and in the 1980s opened the company’s own printing works, Playbill Printworks, in order to take control of any last minute changes needed for its theatre programs.

Nebenzahl was a great lover of the arts, and of jazz music in particular, and he worked as an entrepreneur with Lloyd Martin to present the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He and Kim Bonython brought a number of jazz greats to Australia and presented them in concert, including George Shearing, who performed at the Sydney Opera House as part of the 2000 Olympic Arts Festival.

Playbill also ventured into venue management, working with Lend Lease as the venue managers of Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion and Hall of Industries, both of which they refurbished. Playbill bought out Lend Lease in 2007 and continues to operate these venues. In 2018, Playbill celebrated its 60th anniversary with a big event at the Hordern Pavilion.

Nebenzahl was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 1998 in recognition of his service to the publishing industry and the community. In 2020, he received the prestigious JC Williamson Award at the Helpmann Awards, which acknowledged his role in helping shape the future of the Australian live entertainment and performing arts industry.

In a message to the Playbill team, CEO Michael Nebenzahl said: “My father was an entrepreneur in the true meaning of the word, branching into so many activities over his career and life.”

“Playbill’s first client was the Tivoli, and the rest is history. Brian was well loved and admired throughout the industry; he knew everyone and everything that was going on. He worked with producers large and small and was always ready to help. Those who have been fortunate enough to know and work with Brian have lost a dear friend, whose honesty, warmth and sense of humour will never be forgotten.”

John Frost, Chief Executive of Crossroads Live Australia (formerly The Gordon Frost Organisation), said: “Brian Nebenzahl was a true man of the theatre. Brian and I go a long way back, back to when The Gordon Frost Organisation first started in 1983. Brian published the first programs for Ashley [Gordon] and I, for shows that started at the Footbridge Theatre then toured Australia. And nearly 40 years later, Brian’s company is still publishing our programs. I loved hearing Brian’s stories about how he first started Playbill, and began publishing programs for the Tivoli and JC Williamson’s. He will be sorely missed, but I know Playbill will continue [to go] from strength to strength, and is in good hands under his son Michael.”

In his private life, Nebenzahl cherished his family. He is survived by his wife Jocelyn, their three children Vicki, Michael and Linda, and six grandchildren, Lucy, Danny, Matt, Becky and Zoe. Due to COVID restrictions, a private family service will be held.

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