NEW YORK: Outside a dressing room one recent afternoon in the Walter Kerr Theater, a line of people waited to roll up their sleeves.
Inside was a man with latex gloves, a big smile and a needle filled with this year’s flu vaccine.
“Hi, come on in,” says Dr. Barry A. Kohn, a familiar and beloved figure in the theater community.
His unofficial nickname: “The best jab on Broadway.”
For the past 16 years, Kohn has been lugging around a duffel bag of syringes and administering free flu shots to actors and crew members at Broadway theaters, off- Broadway houses and theater offices. This year, he estimates he’ll give 5,000 shots.
Kohn’s annual visits are a key reason Broadway gets through the sneezy New York winters with its moving pieces still standing. The flu bug loves cramped quarters, high stress and backstage contact.
He’s jabbed everyone from Elton John to new Tony Award-winner Billy Porter from “Kinky Boots.”
“I can call him and say, ‘My leading lady has the sniffles,’ ‘My leading man has this’ or ‘I have an ensemble member with that,’ and he’ll turn up at the theater,” says producer Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions.
Flu deaths can range from as few as 3,000 a year to 49,000 a year. While older people, young children and people with certain health conditions are at highest risk, theater producers can lose plenty at the box office if key people are ill. Generally at least 75 percent of actors at any given show elect to take Kohn’s shot.
“The pressure to be healthy is so strong and Barry adds another layer to get it right,” Schumacher says.
On this day, Kohn, 66, has already visited the Belasco Theatre to give shots to the casts of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night.”
The free shots are sponsored by the union Actors’ Equity and funded by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which gives Kohn an annual grant to pay for the vaccine. This year’s grant was $55,000.
Kohn, however, gets paid nothing. He attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and was in private practice in Sacramento, California, where he made a comfortable life for himself before quitting 18 years ago.
“I wanted a way to give back. I made enough money being a doctor for dollars and just decided there were more important things than walking into the next room and billing for more dollars,” he says.
“If I’d stayed in private practice in Sacramento, I’d have a lot more money today than I have. But I wouldn’t have met all of these folks and I wouldn’t have had this second life adventure.”