NEW YORK (AP) — Outside a dressing room one recent afternoon in the Walter Kerr Theatre, 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.
“Just relax,” he says to one squeamish customer. “You’re doing great.” To another, he gently says, “Don’t pay any attention to me.” The jab in the upper arm is swift and painless. “Thanks for all you do, Barry,” says one sound designer on his way out.
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.
“Although the family doctor no longer makes a house call, Dr. Barry makes a stage-door call,” says producer Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions and a fan of the physician. “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.”
Health officials recommend a yearly flu vaccine for nearly everyone, starting at 6 months, and 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. “From my side of it, keeping people healthy, keeping them comfortable and knowing you’re looking out for them is so important.”
On this day, Kohn, 66, has already visited the Belasco Theatre to give shots to the casts of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” and then to the off-Broadway Playwrights Horizon complex. Later, he’ll see the play “Bronx Bombers” at Primary Stages and administers shots to the cast after the show.
He’s known for his wit, theater memory and a swift, painless vaccination, something that Rachel Zack, the assistant stage manager at “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” was counting on at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
“I usually bleed,” she tells him, rolling up a sleeve. “You’re better than my regular doctor. That’s why I usually have you do it. It hurts less.”
“That’s because I’m really good at this,” Kohn replies.
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. He gets paid nothing.
He’s jabbed everyone from Elton John to new Tony Award-winner Billy Porter from “Kinky Boots.” Kohn was walking out of a restaurant a few years ago when he ran into the actor, who lamented how he’d missed his annual flu shot.
“Barry said, ‘Roll your sleeve up’ and he gave Billy Porter a flu shot on 46th Street,” says Schumacher, who was there. “I’ve literally never heard him say ‘no.'” This year, Porter eagerly got his shot when the company did.
Over the years, Kohn has jabbed people in other odd locations, from the lobby of the Neil Simon Theatre to the bathroom of the restaurant Sardi’s. He’s also there to give B-12 shots, prescribe Tamiflu if the flu vaccines don’t work or help theater folks with allergies. He connects folks to specialists and holds monthly open houses at Equity headquarters in Los Angeles and New York where he’ll vaccinate hundreds a day.
“He’s the real deal,” Schumacher says.
This is a labor of love for Kohn, who grew up in New Jersey and recalls taking the bus to see shows in Times Square. (At one point, he flirted with becoming an actor, “but I think everybody did at some point,” he says, laughing.) He attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and was in private practice in Sacramento, Calif.
He made a comfortable life for himself but grew tired of battling health insurance companies. He quit 18 years ago and he and his wife, who had carefully avoided a lavish lifestyle, started a new life in New York and Hollywood, Calif., living off their investments
“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.”
Those adventures include watching “The Producers” one night from the sound booth and glitzy opening night parties where he’s a favored guest to Schumacher’s annual Christmas party, where — as you might guess — Kohn “runs a little clinic upstairs. Everyone gets a flu shot.”
Asked why he didn’t want to spend his retirement golfing instead of rushing from theater to theater, Kohn smiles: “I never understood why it was important for the ball to go in the hole,” he says.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits