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Exiting too soon

If you've been following the state of the newspaper business over the past few years, you realize that (as with the economy) the picture isn't a rosy one.  From the country's largest dailies to its smallest ones, newsroom staffs are being slashed, with news of buyouts and layoffs surfacing with chilling regularity.  It's no surprise that theater critics have been among the journalists affected by this cost-cutting wave.  But unfortunately for the theaters in sprawling South Florida, for different reasons, two of the three critics for the largest dailies won't be in their jobs when the 2008-2009 season begins.

Hapsoldier_2 Hap Erstein, who isn't nearly as ferocious as he looks in the photo posted here (honest!), joined the Palm Beach Post as its theater critic in 1994, coming south from his hometown of Washington D.C.  Juggling both theater and film criticism with aplomb in recent years, Hap has brought style, humor and a keen intelligence to his craft.  Sure, he lost when he appeared on Jeopardy and The Weakest Link, but at least he made it onto those shows.

Contrary to a rumor floating around, Hap isn't being forced out of his job at the Post. He applied for a buyout and just found out that he'll get one.  He intends, he says, to work for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.  Though he plans to stay in South Florida, he doesn't know whether he'll be doing freelance theater reviews for his former employer.  He does think he's made the right decision, though it brings him no joy.

"This is a great job, the sort you hang onto for life," he says.  "But it didn't work out."

Jack_zink_sunsentinel_photo_2Already gone from his longtime post as the Sun-Sentinel's theater critic (as well as its classical music critic and cultural affairs writer) is Jack Zink. His departure isn't due to the latest buyout/layoff cycle at his paper, something that is happening this week and next.  Jack has been undergoing treatment for cancer since last fall, though he has continued to cover all three of his beats, launch a blog and work on the region's Carbonell Awards, one of his passions since he helped start the awards program in 1976.  He has decided to take a disability leave, in order to focus on his treatment.

Jack has been witness to and the chronicler of the evolution of entertainment -- and theater, of course -- in South Florida ever since he joined the Herald's Broward staff fresh out of Ohio State University in 1969.  He has worked for the Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post and Variety.  He and I both became South Florida theater critics in 1979 (and I also went to Ohio State, oddly enough).  He is a fierce competitor, a thoughtful critic and a terrific reporter.

Hap, Jack and I have had, as Hap noted when we spoke, a very collegial relationship.  In some areas, the critics competing on a beat dislike or ignore each other.  Not here.  We have dined together, dished together, disagreed, squabbled, made each other laugh.  But seeing Hap and Jack in their seats has always been part of what makes opening nights, from Florida Stage to GableStage, so special.

Both the Sun-Sentinel and the Post will continue to cover theater, most likely with freelance critics.  South Florida's evolving theater community and the newspapers' readers deserve the coverage, but it won't be the same as having two staff critics with the perspective, talent and depth of experience Jack and Hap have brought to their jobs.  I will miss them. And I'm certain that South Florida's theater community will too.

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