Wall Street has long since captured the pop culture imagination: the tales of wealth, power, and excess, and of hubris, greed, and loss is the stuff of modern day Greek tragedy. We’ve seen it all on the big screen, from the collapse of the housing market (and the massive profit made off of it) portrayed in the 2015 film The Big Short, to the downfall of excess in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and the granddaddy of them all, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, which made famous the phrase “greed is good”. In an age where the shrinking middle class and income gap between the super-rich and everyone else are hot-button issues, Jerry Sterner’s 1986 play Other People’s Money—about “Larry the Liquidator’s” play for the established-but-outmoded New England Wire and Cable Company—resonates with the national conversation. Other People’s Money premiered Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 1989, at the tail end of the “decade of greed,” and became a megahit, running for 990 performances.
By the mid-1980s, corporate take-overs were on the rise. In early January of 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that about $125 billion in mergers and acquisitions occurred in 1985, an amount up by almost $75 billion from just two years prior. The spree was thought to be due mostly to a combination of easy financing, a lax attitude on mergers by federal regulators, the decline of some industries, and shareholder’s sky-high expectations. Sterner says, “When I wrote Other People’s Money in 1986, the takeover boom wasn’t hysterical yet. But I could see it coming. Kate [New England Wire and Cable Company’s lawyer] says, ‘One day we’re going to smarten up and pass some laws to stop you, Garfinkle.’ Well, we didn’t pass any laws…”
Jerry Sterner had always wanted to write plays, but didn’t start doing so in earnest until mid-life. After spending more than six years in college as a philosophy major with no degree to show for it, his mother pressured him to get a job. He did, working the graveyard shift as a subway token collector. He would write plays during the long nights, but they never made it above ground. When a friend convinced Sterner that “writing leases was more profitable than writing scripts,” he decided to change careers. For the next decade, Sterner worked in real estate, assembling and financing limited partnerships. He specialized in tax shelters where investors put up as little money as necessary for overpriced real estate that delivered large tax write-offs. His business was enormously profitable, and he began to dabble in the stock market.
One of his most successful investments actually later served as the basis for Other People’s Money. In the early 1980s, Sterner started looking into a Michigan company that made things like nuts, bolts, and rivets. He went to visit the company and liked its managers, and began buying the stock at $11 a share. “Most people bought chickentronics [fast-food stock] or high tech,” he explained. “But here was a company in the worst of times that was making money, that had a good product, that had a great balance sheet.” Two years later, though the firm was more profitable, the company’s stock had slumped to $9 a share. It was in the Rust Belt, and was no longer as appealing or sexy an investment as something like technology. When a corporate raider entered the picture and offered stock for $18 a share, Sterner didn’t think twice about selling—he took the money and ran. But then, a year later, he was vacationing with his wife near Grand Rapids, Michigan and decided to visit the company he had once invested in. The plant was still there, but the community had been gravely changed. “It was really what I saw there that made me re-examine how smart I was and whether I did the right thing,” he says. When making money is the name of the game, morality can get murky. Sterner posits the question: “Is business here to satisfy the needs of its citizenry or are we here to serve the needs of business? How do we balance the need to have a long-term point of view with our incredible desire for instant gratification?”
After more than a decade, Sterner left the real estate business. Other People’s Money was the second play he wrote after quitting his day job. The first, Be Happy For Me, was a flop that never made it to opening night. When working on Other People’s Money, he had hoped to write a play about the world he knew and lived in for so long, and to create a story that his peers in business would appreciate. But even though the subject matter was timely, Sterner initially had trouble getting the play produced—producers feared the financial jargon would be a bore for audiences. But the real-life insider-trading scandal and fall of Ivan Boesky captured the imagination of the theater-going public, and Other People’s Money made its debut in early 1987 at the American Stage Co. in Teaneck, NJ. In February 1989, it moved Off Broadway, opening at the Minetta Lane Theatre to rave reviews, particularly from the business community. Other People’s Money was later made into the 1991 movie of the same name with Danny DeVito and Gregory Peck. Sterner died in 2001, but the hard questions he asks about other people’s money still haunt us today.
Lin, Jennifer. “Money Talks on the N.Y. Stage,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 March 1989. http://articles.philly.com/1989-03-14/business/26129004_1_takeovers-corporate-raiders-new-england-wire
Mason, M.S. “Jerry Sterner: Playwright, Capitalist,” The Christian Science Monitor, 15 November 1991. http://www.csmonitor.com/1991/1115/15161.html