Francis Maurice (Frank) Comerford – the longest-serving leader of the 143-year-old The Stage newspaper and digital platform – has died in London aged 95.
Comerford, a former research scientist in the iron and steel industry, unexpectedly became managing director of the family-owned business on the sudden death of his father in 1954. As a former editor of The Stage has since observed: “In his mid twenties, he was forced to learn the ways of newspaper publishing and the particular needs of a readership which encompassed performers at a time when he least expected it.”
But he learned it well.
As The Stage notes in its obituary, “One of his first decisions was whether or not to incorporate coverage of television, the relatively new medium that appeared to pose a threat to live performance. The change of title to The Stage and Television Today in 1959 committed the paper to TV coverage, making it one of the first publications to take television seriously. In the early 1970s, he was also instrumental in starting up Showcall, a light entertainment directory, followed in 1983 by the Showcall Showcase, an opportunity for agents, bookers, producers and performers to get together in person and see what was available.”
By the time he stepped up to become the company’s chair 38 years later, it was clear that he had successfully steered the weekly newspaper through a period of more change both in the theatre and in publishing than there had been in the whole of the previous century.
But Frank Comerford never really retired, attending last month’s The Stage Awards (as usual). After becoming chair in 1992, he remained a director until his death on Friday (24 February). He had led The Stage for almost half of its life as the world’s longest-surviving weekly for the theatrical profession. His son Hugh has been the managing director since 2012, having succeeded sister Catherine (now chair).
The Stage has been published by the Comerford family since its 1880 launch as The Stage Directory (“A London and Provincial Theatrical Advertiser”). It was founded, initially as a monthly, by its editor Charles Carson and business manager Maurice Comerford, Frank’s grandfather. It has been published as a weekly continuously since 1881.
Its illustrious history includes advertising which, in 1956, persuaded wannabe playwright John Osborne to submit his script for Look Back in Anger to London’s Royal Court Theatre. Ads in The Stage also brought together many pop groups including the Spice Girls, Take That, and Steps. Harold Pinter, Idris Elba, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, and Charles Dance all reportedly also found their first acting jobs there.
In 2020, The Stage Media Company acquired the 164-year-old Bookseller, another of the UK’s 20 oldest business and professional media brands.
Although The Stage – like The Bookseller – is still a weekly publication, its continuing success has been due to the growth of online audiences and live events. The Stage has some 30k print and digital subscribers but an online audience of some 680k monthly uniques, presumably comprising “pro-sumers” as well as theatre professionals in the UK and around the world. Its daily email newsletter has a circulation of 105k.
The successful transition of a legendary B2B media brand, now in its third century, owes much to the elder statesman Frank Comerford who guided The Stage for a momentous 69 years.
Francis Maurice Comerford, 1927-2023.