Michael Butler, loyal devotee to the world of polo and famed producer of the musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, passed away peacefully November 7, 2022 in Los Angeles, California at the age of 95. He was born November 26, 1926 in Chicago, Illinois.
Butler is most publicly known as the force who brought Hair from Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theatre to Broadway in 1968, where it ran for 1,750 performances. Hair’s famous tribe brought drugs, anti-war politics, rock ‘n roll music and even the audience onto the stage for the first time. At that time, Hair changed everything: theater, Broadway, politics, film, music. By the 1970s, the show had played in more than 25 countries, in 14 languages, and had been seen by over 25 million people; today it is estimated that over a billion people have seen some version of the musical.
Butler’s interest in athletics led him to an active participation in many sports including polo, tennis and yachting. He served in many positions, including Whipper-In of the Oak Brook Hounds, Chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Trials Committee, Vice Commodore of the Talisman Corinthian Yacht Club, President of SkiClub 10, Governor of the United States Polo Association, and Chairman of the Oak Brook Polo Club (Oak Brook, Illinois) and Chicago Polo Club as well as Captain of the Oak Brook Polo Team and the Warfield Polo Team.
Butler is the son and grandson of the founders of the Oak Brook Polo Club in Illinois, established in 1922. A third-generation polo player, Butler’s introduction to riding was tumultuous. When he was just 7 years old, he was riding his pony when they accidentally stepped on a rotten basement door, resulting in them falling through. He got blood poisoning from landing on an assortment of nails and almost lost his arm because of it, but doctors were able to perform a procedure that saved it, though it resulted in some future complications he would have using the extremity.
Despite this, Butler’s childhood still revolved around horses, calling the thousands of acres that made up the Oak Brook Polo Club home. His injury kept him from playing polo during this time, but he would later pick up the sport in his 20s. While it wasn’t easy for him to play, as his scarred right arm was six inches shorter than the left and locked at the elbow, he learned how and adapted, eager to join in the sport that runs deep in the veins of the Butler family.
Rising to a 1-goal handicap, Butler’s achievements include the 1974 Delegate’s Cup, 1979 Continental Cup and the Butler Handicap in 1979, 1986 and 1987.
Rising ultimately to a 1-goal handicap, Butler also grew to be quite involved in the USPA and the sport of polo. He served on the Board of Governors for 17 years from 1968 to 1985 and he managed the Oak Brook Polo Club for many years. He also found quite a bit of success on the field, triumphing in many prestigious tournaments, including the 1974 Delegate’s Cup (which was the first ever Delegate’s Cup after formerly being referred to as the Eight Goal), the 1979 Continental Cup, and the Butler Handicap on three separate occasions (1979, 1986, 1987).
When the U.S. Open Polo Championship left Oak Brook Polo Club after taking place at the Illinois club from 1954-1978, Butler still wanted to cement Oak Brook as the epicenter of competitive polo. To do so, he began bringing in visiting teams and sending teams to other clubs. The most notable example of this was in 1986, when Butler arranged for Prince Charles to come to Oak Brook to play with a British team. The event drew over 20,000 spectators and marked the first time that the Prince of Wales had played on American soil on an all-British team.
Butler also did a lot of traveling of his own, visiting Argentina to purchase horses from Eddie Moore frequently, visiting Santa Barbara to play alongside polo greats such as Bob Skene, Bill Atkinson and Ronnie Tongg, and even moving to England for a few years in 1970 to experience the sport there. His other notable polo destinations included Jamaica, Mexico, Ireland and Hawaii.
Though his outside interests took him elsewhere in life, polo was always Butler’s true passion. He once shared, “Polo meant more to me than any aspect of my life. Most of my friends are people who are tied to polo. It meant a tremendous amount to me – the spirit and meaning of the game.”
In addition to polo, Butler’s passions included ventures in entertainment, business, finance and politics.
Butler was also a life member of Explorer’s Club, The Art Institute of Chicago, Oceanographic, National Geographic, the Knickerbocker, Racquet & Tennis (NY) and the Bears.
His interest in his community and world affairs led him to fill civic roles in both local and national politics. He served as Special Advisor to Senator John F. Kennedy on the Middle East, and was appointed by Robert F. Kennedy to manage Governor Otto Kerner’s campaign for re-election as Governor of Illinois. He was the first Chancellor of the Lincoln Academy and was decorated as Laureate with the Order of Lincoln.
He was Commissioner of the Port of Chicago, President of the Organization of Economic Development in Illinois, P.A. to Governor Otto Kerner, President of the Illinois Sports Council, and a Democratic Candidate in Du Page County for the State Senate. He was on the Advisory Board of Global Youth Action Network. In the business world, Butler served as V.P. of General Sales for the family’s Butler Paper Company. He worked with Butler Overseas, Overseas Bank Ltd., Basic Investment Corporation, Vision, Rand Hotel Corporation, Dugda I and Dugda II, Patherdi Coal Washeries, and on the reconstruction of Hejaz Railroad in the kingdom of Jordan. He also participated in numerous real estate projects including work with Talisman Development, Sugarbush, Oak Brook Development Company, Old Oak Brook, and Oak Brook Hills Hotel and Golf Course.
Michael Butler was born in Chicago, Illinois to Paul Butler and Marjorie von Stresenreuter. His Anglo-Irish family first arrived in America in the early 1600s, and his first American born Butler ancestor, Lt. Wm. Butler was born in 1653 in Massachusetts. In 1841, Michael’s great great uncle Oliver Morris Butler built a paper mill on the Fox River in Illinois which produced fine printing paper, the first such mill ever built west of Pittsburgh, and a Butler paper mill produced the first American made paper used in the U.S. Senate. In 1857, Oliver’s brother Julius Wales Butler became the agent and subsequently the owner of what became the J.W. Butler Paper Company, which also had warehouses on State Street in Chicago, Illinois. It was the oldest family-owned business in Chicago. The family were at one time the largest private landowners in Du Page County.
Butler with his son, Adam.
He is survived by his son Adam Butler, Adam’s wife Michelle, and his grandson Liam. He is also survived by his sister Jorie Butler Kent and her daughter Reute Butler as well as his half-sister Wendy Dunaway and her two daughters Missy West and Jorie Waterman. In lieu of flowers the family would appreciate contributions to his favorite charity, Jorie and Reute’s Friends of Conservation, of which he is a founding director.