Remembering Max Cooper: Broadway Producer and Fast Food Tycoon

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Max Cooper was many things; fast food tycoon, sports impresario, advertising guy, entrepreneur and someone with a lifelong desire to be in show business. Greg Bass spoke with Cooper for WBHM in December of 2010.

“At one point in time I wanted to be a comedy writer. In fact I did write for several comics in my younger days.” recalled Cooper.

Cooper wrote scripts for radio before World War 2. During the war, while stationed in Trinidad, he started the first armed forces radio station and interviewed entertainers like Al Jolson. In the 1950s, as a press agent in Chicago, he represented the famous jazz club The Blue Note.

Said Cooper, “They had every great band back there. Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald played the club, Sarah Vaughn played the club.”

Cooper was also involved in sports broadcasting. He helped bring professional bowling to TV and produced a syndicated golf show. He traveled to Cuba in the late ‘50s to to record winter league baseball games there for rebroadcast. While there, he was also a witness to history.

“I was in Havana the night of the revolution, December 31,” he remembered. “We were there with the commissioner of baseball to get the rights to do the games. But we didn’t expect that when we were coming back that there wouldn’t be a Bautista but there would be a Fidel Castro. During the morning of the revolution we got a call from a friend that was leaving the morning on the ferryboat. And they called and said Bautista has fled, we suggest you do the same. And hung up. He said I got to hang up.”

Cooper returned to Havana after the revolution to record more games. He had photo of himself with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro to prove it.

While he was in Cuba, one of his business partners called about a new hamburger chain called McDonald’s. That led Cooper to a 55-year relationship with the company, first as marketing manager for the chain and in 1966 as an owner of 3 stores in Birmingham. Cooper is credited with McDonald’s most famous promotion, the Big Mac jingle: “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.

His success in the hamburger business made it possible for him to pursue his true passion: producing Broadway shows.

“My sister one day told me about Bloomingdale’s Christmas Catalog. They always had some glamorous trip. And this one had a trip to the Tonys. I bought two tickets for my wife and myself,” said Cooper, recalling how it all started.

“It was a fabulous package. They picked us up at the airport, gave us a suite at the Plaza, tickets to Broadway shows, dinner for the cast of the presenters of the Tony Awards. The producer of the Tonys was a man named Alexander Cohen, a famous producer on Broadway. So he came over and I said I have an interest in Broadway. Is there anyway I could find my way into producing shows? And it was like the sheep inviting the fox to come aboard. So he says, have I got a deal for you!”

Cooper and Cohen won awards for successful revivals of Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Crucible and Spring Awakening.

Max Cooper also got to work with Broadway legend Manny Azenberg who produced all of Neal Simon’s plays.

“He called me one day and said, how would you like to invest in a show called The Odd Couple with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. I locked all the doors so he wouldn’t leave.” laughed Cooper. “In The Producers there’s a line Nathan says to Matthew when Matthew said something about investing in their show. And he says ‘the first rule of show business is don’t ever, ever, ever invest in your own play.’ I never learned that.”

Max Cooper may have been a fast food tycoon, but he never gave up on show business. He died Sunday a few months shy of his 100th birthday.