Meet the New NYWIFT Member: Willette Murphy Klausner

By Mary Skinner

If you’ve seen a great Broadway show recently, chances are Willette Murphy Klausner had something to do with it. As the founder and owner of WMK Productions in Los Angeles she has produced or co-produced dozens of award-winning theatrical and film projects, including MJ the Musical, Hadestown, Stereophonic, The Wiz. Porgy and Bess, Three Mo’ Tenors, Caroline or Change and Cabaret, just to name a few. For film, she’s co-producing the documentary Liza, which just premiered at the Tribeca Festival. Previous films include Radium Girls and Wakefield with several film and TV projects in development. In 2022 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Drama League. She has served on the Boards of Directors of the Los Angeles Music Center and the Women in Film Foundation, is a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women, the National Women’s Forum, and NYWIFT. She is currently on the board of Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts.

From the very beginning of her career, Willette’s been known as a trailblazer. Between 1975 and 1981 she worked at MCA Universal Studios in a series of roles with increasing responsibilities. She pioneered marketing and audience research for the studio and became the first female corporate vice president of MCA Universal’s production company – all this during an era when there were very few Black Americans working as executives in Hollywood, and even fewer women studio executives.

NYWIFT Member Willette Klausner (photo courtesy of Willette Klausner)


Yet, when you ask Willette what it took to beat what seemed like those insurmountable odds, she’ll tell you she did what she liked and felt she was good at. She never worried about rejection and just went for what she wanted with the strong work ethic she had gotten from her father. “I never saw myself as a victim and I never saw myself as a color. I don’t live there. I don’t focus on things that I can’t do anything about” she says, “I focus on what makes each of us good at what we do. I’m Willette, that’s me, and what you think of me is none of my business. We women are usually a lot stronger than you might guess, and especially in the arts, we have the emotional intelligence that helps us naturally excel at this business.”

Willette credits her parents with nurturing her confidence and the discipline to work hard towards achieving her goals. She grew up in Santa Barbara in a community where less than 5% of the population was Black. “My parents were married forever. My father was a self-made man who built a relatively successful catering business. He was very demanding and made us study and work hard. My mother gave us comfort and tremendous confidence in ourselves. I never remember my parents focusing on being Black. I was me. I was Willette and that was fine, and anything I wanted to do was great, as long as I was willing to work for it. After all, you’ll never know how capable you are until you go for it.”

Willette Klausner with Ben Vereen at the Drama League Awards, where Vereen presented her with the Gratitude Award (photo courtesy of Willette Klausner)


To pay for her education at UCLA, she worked as a secretary to J. Fred Weston, the chairman of the Business and Finance department. An economics professor at UCLA changed her way of thinking for the rest of her life: The professor demonstrated the laws of supply and demand by talking about parking spaces on campus. There weren’t enough for the number of students who wanted them. Supply was too low, and demand was too high. So how do you change that? You raise the price of parking spaces, until the demand meets the supply. But, what about the students who can’t pay for the higher-priced parking spaces? Well, you have solved the parking problem, but you can now explore ways to help poorer students to bid into the process. But that’s a separate issue. That simple lesson in supply and demand inspired her to change her major to economics and continues to inform her approach to all aspects of life.

At UCLA she broke barriers as the first Black and first female senior class president. It was also at UCLA, years before Black models made the scene in American fashion, that Willette was the first Black model to appear in an American fashion magazine. In August of 1961, she appeared in the college issue of Mademoiselle Magazine on the UCLA campus wearing a simple white skirt, top and jacket. She only learned she was the first from an article in The New York Times.

Willette Murphy in Mademoiselle Magazine (photo courtesy of Willette Klausner)


After graduating from UCLA in Economics and Classical Philosophy, Willette went to New York where she attended Tobe Coburn School for Fashion Careers. Upon graduating, she worked for Bloomingdale’s and became its first female and first Black merchandising executive. After a few years in the garment industry, she left New York to return to Los Angeles via Europe. Her first stop was Copenhagen where she ran out of money and began modelling at an art school. A student there introduced her to Jean Voigt, the leading fashion designer in Copenhagen who hired her to be his top model.

She traveled in Europe for fashion shows and fun for six months before returning to Los Angeles. There Willette worked as a statistical analyst before embarking on a career in advertising research where many of her clients were national advertisers such as General Motors, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, etc. Eventually her interest in theater and film led her to MCA Universal.

At MCA Universal Willette applied her background in economics and market analysis to releasing and distributing films and media. At the time, she was the only female executive working on the management team for media mogul Lew Wasserman. She soon garnered enormous respect from the group for her work applying data, research and audience testing to building audiences for films. It was a tremendous opportunity to learn more about producing films as she quickly rose up the ladder to a top position. But something else was calling her.


“I had always wanted to produce, and I knew I would have to leave MCA Universal eventually to do my own work. I decided to form own company in 1981. I knew that producing movies was difficult and expensive, so I began with an equity-waiver theatrical production.” In 1988 the LA production of David Rabe’s Hurly Burly starring Sean Penn and Danny Aiello debuted at Westwood Playhouse to critical acclaim. Since then, Willette’s production company has gone on to produce almost 50 groundbreaking theater and film projects around the world.

“I like musicals because they speak to the heart and I’m drawn to projects that I believe have something important to say, something I believe in,” she says.

Married since 1969 to Manuel Klausner, Willette and her husband have traveled all over the world in pursuit of their passion for fine dining and wine. They have been called “gastronauts” (people who fly to eat) and are the original foodies. Together they have invested in dozens of restaurants and are co-founders of the American Institute of Wine and Food together with Julia Child, Robert Mondavi, Kim and Michael McCarty among others.

Currently they live in LA, visiting New York and other cities where their projects and appetite take them. Willette is proud to be a member of NYWIFT. “It’s a great organization and I love that it brings together women from so many different parts of our industry in support of each other.”

Willette is often asked for advice for women who are entering the industry. “Know yourself. Know what you like and what you don’t like, and do what you like,” she says without hesitation. “Get good at that and you will at least enjoy your life.”


Mary Skinner

Mary Skinner As the Owner, Producer, and Director of maryskinnermedia.org for over 19 years, I create and distribute documentary, educational, and corporate digital media that showcase the resilience, courage, and hope of people facing adversity and injustice. My mission is to tell compelling stories that inspire diverse audiences and promote social change.

View all posts by Mary Skinner

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