The Story Behind Yale's Huge Theater Gifts

It's not often that a titan of the military-industrial complex leaves the world of defense contracting behind to become a hugely successful theater owner. And its even less often that somebody like that turns around and gives $21 million in gifts to a top university to nurture students aspiring to work in theater. Clearly, Jeffrey Binger — a 1938 graduate of Yale who died in 2004 — was one unusual man. And his postmortem gifts to Yale University for theater are the largest ever of this kind to any university.

Binger grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and attended Saint Paul Academy, where he met his wife Virginia McKnight, daughter of 3M Chairman, William L. McKnight. Binger first developed his love of theater while he was student at Yale, but didn't pursue a career in theater after graduating with an economics degree. Instead, Binger earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School and joined Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney. One of the firm's clients was Honeywell. Binger joined Honeywell and became its president in 1961, then its chairman in 1965. Under his leadership, the company expanded internationally, and moved aggressively into defense contracting and computing.  

But Binger's interests took a sharp turn in the 1970s that led him back to his love of theater. In 1974, he and his wife took over her father's two theaters, and the family's enterprise, a private philanthropic organization founded in 1953 you may have heard of called the McKnight Foundation. Virginia served as president of the Foundation and during her tenure the organization gave away close to $235 million, and its assets grew from less than $8 million to almost $800 million.

The couple sold the Colonial Theatre in Boston, but maintained the St. James Theatre on Broadway, which inspired them to expand the operation. They began Jujamcyn Amusement Corporation, named after their children (JUdith, JAMes, and CYNthia), and procured a total of five theatres to create the third-largest company on Broadway behind the Shubert Organization and the Nederlander Organization, even though Jujamcyn only owned five of the 40 Broadway district playhouses. Binger's business savvy and know-how turned their small theater operation into a much-envied business that, at points, accounted for as much as one-third of the gross revenues of Broadway.

Binger was a life member of the board at the Guthrie Theater, located in Minneapolis; a director of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York; and a member of the executive committee of the League of American Theaters (now the Broadway League, co-presenters of the Tony Awards). When word got out that Binger had died, the League of American Theatres and Producers announced that Broadway's marquees would be dimmed at 8 p.m. on November 4th in tribute to him.

Binger's history with Yale University stretches back a long way. By 1987 he was among the law school's biggest individual benefactors, giving over $1 million to that institution. But the biggest Binger money to Yale has gone to theater. At the heart of these gifts is the former Yale Center for New Theater, which is being renamed the Binger Center for New Theater. 

The money comes from the Robina Foundation, a Minnesota-based philanthropy that Binger created before his death that seeks to positively impact critical social issues. The foundation made an initial gift to Yale of $2.8 million. A more recent grant of $18 million brings the total giving for theater at Yale to nearly $21 million. The Robina Foundation has also given regularly to the law school in recent years — $4 million in 2011 alone.

The $18 million gift will be divided into $3 million in operating funds and $15 million for an endowment. Since the opening of the Binger Center for New Theater, Robina donations have financed commissions to more than 30 writers as well as the world premieres and subsequent productions of 12 new plays and musicals.

“We believe that these significant investments in artists themselves, in combination with robust production opportunities and the fostering of an artistic community, can and will promote vibrant new American plays and musicals for generations to come," James Bundy, dean of Yale drama and artistic dean of Yale Rep, said in a statement last year.

It should be noted that the Robina Foundation's giving to Yale for theater may be far from over. The foundation still has tens of millions of dollars in assets (See Fundraising for College Performing Arts).