Farewell to Michael Butler, hippie millionaire who launched musical ‘Hair’ on Broadway

He was 96 years old. He called himself a “bon vivant” who filled his days between polo matches, romantic stories, adventurous affairs and left-wing political causes

Michael Butler, the millionaire producer and hippie with long hair and bushy mustache who brought the counterculture musical ‘Hair’ to Broadway, where it broke the norms with its celebration of drugs, anti-war protest and free love, died at the age of 96 in a nursing home in Los Angeles. The announcement of the disappearance was given by Aunt Wesley, friend and biographer of Butler, as reported by the ‘New York Times’.

‘Michael Butler called himself a ‘bon vivant’ who filled his days with polo matches, romance, adventurous affairs and leftist political causes. Butler, who had served as adviser to US President Joh Fitzgerald Kennedy, was considering running against Everett Dirksen, the husky-voiced Illinois senator, when he saw an off-Broadway production of ‘Hair.’ “I was blown away,” Butler said later. “It was the strongest anti-war statement I’ve ever seen.”

Butler immediately abandoned his political aspirations, reworked the plot of the show, added the famous nude scene, made the ending more optimistic and almost doubled the number of songs in the production. Beginning in 1968, the rock musical ran for 1,742 performances on Broadway, spawned more than two dozen other productions, was nominated for a Tony Award, and won a Grammy Award for Best Original Score. A decade later, in 1979, on the wave of great success, director Milos Forman brought “Hair” to the cinema.

For Broadway, ‘Hair’ was a complete hippie baptism with its psychedelics, flower child costumes, ‘tribal’ gatherings and Age of Aquarius ethos. Spectators were invited onto the stage for a finale featuring the racially integrated black and white cast. songs like ‘Let the Sunshine In’, ‘Aquarius’ and ‘Good Morning Starshine’ became anthems for the counterculture movement and the soundtrack became common throughout the hippie communities of America.

As the musical played in numerous American theaters, Butler was generally involved in every production, occasionally joining the cast on stage. “I did the nude scene in San Francisco. I lived with two actors in the cast”, he told the ‘Chicago Tribune’ years ago.

Butler estimated that he made about $10 million from the musical and then went through the 1970s: a fixture at the most exclusive society parties, arriving in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce and flying in a private jet. With his shoulder-length hair and bushy mustache, Butler slipped easily into a world of Hollywood celebrities, aristocrats, and rock stars. He has invested the profits in an ice rink, a soccer team and a reggae band and has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to support liberal causes.

Born November 26, 1926 in Chicago, Butler and his two brothers grew up in a family of great wealth. Butler’s father and grandfather founded the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook and the Oak Brook Polo Club, which Butler and a sister later ran. He also became a polo player of caliber and traveled the world to attend matches.

With his abundant connections, he entered politics, serving as an adviser to President Kennedy covering the Middle East; He also managed Illinois Governor Otto Kerner’s re-election campaign and served as Chicago Port Commissioner. Before the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, Butler negotiated a meeting between Yippie co-founder, radical Abbie Hoffman, and Chicago mayor, Richard J. Daley, hoping to form a leftist political bloc.

With the huge success of ‘Hair’, Butler felt free to back other Broadway productions. Some shows, like the Lenny Bruce-inspired ‘Lenny’, worked; others, like the Caribbean ‘Reggae’ do not. He also helped produce the hippie film ‘You Are What You Eat’ (1968) and had a small role as a truck driver in ‘Electra Glide in Blue’ (1973).

For years Butler has been waging a legal battle with his brothers over their father’s inheritance, once valued at up to $100 million, though some have said the valuation was much lower. Whatever size the estate once was, by 1991 it was mostly gone, and Butler filed for bankruptcy and sold his holdings to help pay off the debts. “Twenty years ago,” he told the New York Times, “I had five houses, one with 15 bedrooms, but I found that possessions are a liability. I wanted to live more simply. After all, I built the my life on non-materialism, on ‘hair'”.

And ‘Hair’ continued the money for its survival. At the time of his death at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, Butler was working with producers on an updated production of the musical, which opens at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood next year.

Married three times, Butler is survived by son Adam, nephew Liam and a sister, Jorie Butler Kent.