Slowly, gradually, the reality of what happened to Jeff Loeffelholz is starting to set in on his loved ones as well as those who toil away, day and night, at the Ambassador Theater.
After his grueling rehearsal with Chicago director Walter Bobbie and musical director Leslie Stifelman, Loeffelholz took his own life rather than face what he perceived as his “marked” status after a dressing down in front of his peers, many of whom he’s known for well over a decade.
Loeffelholz was a Broadway institution, having served as one of the longest-running standbys in Broadway history and serving as the standby for the role of Mary Sunshine since the current revival of Chicago opened on Broadway 22 years ago.
However, instead of celebrating his dedication and devotion to a show he loved, someone at Chicago – for whatever reasons – decided that it was time for him to go.
Mission accomplished: He’s gone.
As helpless and scorned as Loeffelholz felt after that rehearsal on June 22, there were at least a few people who comforted him after his devastating rehearsal. One of whom has agreed to speak to the Justice for Jeff blog as long as their identity is kept hidden. That individual will simply be referred to as a theater employee or the source.
According to this individual, when Loeffelholz arrived at the Ambassador Theater he was already shaken; having a rehearsal out of the blue with the show’s director is unusual, especially after being in the cast for over two decades. Something was amiss and Loeffelholz knew it.
“The Company that Likes to Fire People”
“He was, for lack of a better word, a nervous wreck,” the theater employee said, after they encountered Loeffelholz prior to the rehearsal. “He was very, very worried about his job. They called this last-minute rehearsal and he just didn’t know what to make of it because that wasn’t something that usually happened, and like I said before, Chicago’s the company that likes to fire people, and you just never know. Nobody really feels secure in his job there, so I totally understood where he was coming from.”
Eventually Loeffelholz was called to rehearsal and the source, who did not actually see the rehearsal but could hear it from where they were working. The production stage manager asked Loeffelholz if he wanted to work in the character’s shoes, as was noted in the blog that recounted his rehearsal notes.
At this point the source said to Loeffelholz that this was a good sign, “because at least they didn’t call you in just to fire you and kick you out the door.”
“I heard him singing the song over and over and over, which struck me as unusual,” the theater employee said. “I know he only has one song (“A Little Bit of Good,” Mary Sunshine’s showstopper), so there’s really nothing else for him to rehearse, but even that day before any of this happened, I remember thinking, that’s an awful lot of singing through that difficult song. I was wondering what was going on.”
“Completely At A Loss”
After a break in the rehearsal, Loeffelholz joined the theater employee again and according to them Loeffelholz was at a loss for words, which “if you know Jeff, that’s very unusual.” The theater employee said that they asked Loeffelholz to check in after the rehearsal because they didn’t know what was going to happen and they wanted to make sure he was okay.
“He was completely at a loss. And eventually, he told me, what we’ve all heard now a million times, that he was so humiliated. He’d never been treated that badly in his whole life and he told me the things that Walter said,” the theater employee said, who then tried to assure Loeffelholz that he was probably not going to be fired but that he should “lay low. I can’t even imagine how awful it was to hear that stuff and to hear it in front of your peers.”
The theater employee felt that as long as Loeffelhoz “flew under the radar” for a few weeks that everything would be fine for him and that his job would probably be safe. But they said that Loeffelholz told them about the comments made during the rehearsal, which have been previously reported from Loeffelholz’s own notes.
I can’t even imagine how awful it was to hear that stuff and to hear it in front of your peers.”
“He told me something about Walter saying, ‘I can’t tell you what to do, but you’ve been here 22 years and it’s time for you to do the right thing,’” they said. “And [Walter] said, ‘You make more money on this production than I do’ or something to that effect. “There’s plenty of money to go around at that place.* That was just unnecessary. For [Bobbie] to say that, to even think that way is just uncalled for.”
When asked if the theater employee thought that Loeffelholz would take his own life after the rehearsal, they replied, “No … I did not see it coming.”
After Loefflholz left the Ambassador Theater the next time the theater employee saw him was on his deathbed at Roosevelt Hospital exactly one week later.
“She Was Always Awful to Him”
Apparently in the days that followed Loeffelholz’s last rehearsal, there was plenty of buzz backstage at the Ambassador Theater. According to the source, someone who watched Loeffelhoz rehearse with Bobbie and Stifelman told them that it was a terrible rehearsal adding that “Walter drags him through the mud,” before adding, “I watched it all from the wings.”
While the theater employee told Justice for Jeff that they never saw Bobbie personally attack a performer, they have heard stories, and that Stifelman, particularly, had always had an issue with Loeffelholz. “It was no secret that there was no love lost [between Loeffelholz and Stifelman], for Leslie,” they said. “I don’t think it was on Jeff’s side, but she was always awful to him, too. Everybody knew that.” Stifelman would roll her eyes every time Loefelholz was on stage, they added.
The theater employee has heard stories of how poorly Stifelman would treat members of the cast as well as the musicians. “I would hear stories about how [Stifelman] would yell things at people on stage,” they said. “Demeaning things. There are countless stories. Those stories will go on forever. Everyone has a Leslie story!”
“They Get Some Sort of Weird Pleasure Out of Treating Us Badly”
The theater employee went on to speak about the pressure among shows on Broadway and how performers and backstage personnel at newer shows are always stressed out because they do not yet know how long their jobs will last. However, Chicago is into its third decade on Broadway, so it should be a safer bet for the personnel employed there; a successful, long-running show should have a more relaxed atmosphere. “It should be a nice place to work,” the theater employee said. “But for some reason, it’s just not.”
According to the source, that lack of fun seems to start at the top. “When [the producers] call a meeting, they say we’re a family and we have to stick together,” they said. “But it just doesn’t ring true like the fact we work every holiday. They don’t have to have a show on a holiday. Not every show has a show on Thanksgiving, yet for over [many]** years, I’ve been dragging my ass to work while they’re at home eating their turkey.”
They are always trying to find a way to maximize their profits, the theater employee continued. “And if that means cheating us out of money, then that’s what they do. They are perfectly happy to break rules if it means they don’t have to pay us for an hour of overtime. And that kind of attitude trickles downs. You don’t feel valued. People need jobs and it’s easy to say, ‘just go somewhere else.’ But it’s not so easy to do.”
“He was very, very worried about his job. They called this last-minute rehearsal and he just didn’t know what to make of it because that wasn’t something that usually happened … Chicago’s the company that likes to fire people, and you just never know. Nobody really feels secure in his job there …”
According to the theater employee, everyone employed at Chicago knows there’s no job security, “so they don’t want to do anything to tip the scale against them,” they said. “I honestly don’t know where it comes from. But I think they like to keep the employees on their toes. I get the feeling that they get some weird pleasure out of treating us badly.”
“Afraid for Their Jobs”
The theater employee says that as time has passed since Loeffelholz’s death, things at the Ambassador Theater are starting to get back to normal and “the sting of it all is sort of dying down.”
However, they added that there are certainly people at Chicago who are motivated and want to affect some sort of change, “but I think that the more time goes on, people are very afraid for their jobs and I was shocked. If I were there, at that rehearsal, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell this so-called independent investigator that the Weisslers hired*** the truth because it’s the truth and it’s the right thing to do!”
But sadly, the theater employee was sad to hear that a person they spoke say that they didn’t think anyone wanted to speak up or even talk to “this Judd Bernstein guy. And I couldn’t believe it.”
“I wish I were there,” the source continued. “Because I would have more to say. Like I said, I really don’t have much of a story to tell, but it really surprised me that people don’t want to talk.”
The unselfish act of simple kindness of being there for a fellow co-worker, a fellow human being who was mercilessly humiliated, is actually a great story to tell. No doubt, Loeffelholz’s friends and family are grateful for the decency and compassion this theater employee demonstrated.
*According to a 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal, the Broadway production of Chicago has made over $500 million.
**Highlighting how many years the source has worked at Chicago might put a target on them and that is not the goal of this piece. The range is somewhere between one year and fifty years.
***Judd Bernstein has been hired by the producers of Chicago to launch an investigation into allegations of bullying that led to Loeffelholz’s suicide.
[THEATER PHOTOS BY ANTHONY S. PICCO]