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Originally published Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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From fiscals to footlights for former Apple exec

After years as an executive at Apple, Debi Coleman is indulging her artistic love: theater. She is coproducing the musical “A Room with a View” at the 5th Avenue Theatre next month, and Nicole Brodeur chats with her.


Seattle Times columnist

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So this is her? The woman who balanced the books of American technological history, who stood up to the man some consider a god and who was one of those to feel the first blush of Silicon Valley wealth?

“I’m getting a drink,” Debi Coleman said the other day, settling into her chair at the Fairmont Hotel’s sumptuous Georgian Room in slacks and a jacket, dropping her purse on the floor beside her.

The first CFO of Apple is a theater producer now and was in Seattle the other week for the first complete sing-through of the script of “A Room With a View,” set to open at the 5th Avenue Theatre on April 15.

To celebrate, Coleman, 60, invited director David Armstrong and the 30 members of the cast to high tea. Her treat.

“This homemade raspberry jam is to die for!” she told the table, which included “View” leading man Louis Hobson, who declined the sweets. (There’s a skinny-dipping scene ...)

“I still haven’t gotten over the crying,” Coleman said of the rehearsal. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like when there’s an audience.”

She’s happiest when she’s part of one. In the last year, Coleman has seen all 11 productions of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, three dozen plays in the Portland area and another two dozen in New York.

A real theater nerd.

“You’re being very polite when you use the term ‘nerd,’ ” she said. “I use the term ‘theater slut.’ ”

In a few days, Coleman would embark on a cruise called “Broadway on the High Seas,” headed to the South Pacific (of course) and featuring Great White Way stars like Norbert Leo Butz (“I loved him in ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ ”) and Christine Ebersole.

Coleman lives in a luxury Portland high-rise with her dog, Seeger, named for Pete. She never married and has no children, but is aunt to 13 nieces and nephews.

“My next-door neighbor — not that he’s there — is Paul Allen,” she said, referring to the Microsoft co-founder. “I guess I should call him my next-door owner.”

They would likely get along, if he was ever home: “I think our birthdays are one day apart.”

And Jobs? How did they get along?

“The man had a Rasputin-like hold on you,” Coleman said, a description she has used before. “When he told you something, he had a hold over you. When it was a small group, he held people in the palm of his hand and told you we’re going to change the world. And we did.”

After Jobs died in October 2011, Coleman was part of a group of 40 or 50 former Apple employees who got together “for our own memorial service.”

“It was full of the stories that weren’t told” in Walter Issacson’s 2011 book, “Steve Jobs,” she said.

She recalled one, during the original rollout of the Macintosh computer.

“They were in Germany, and Steve, a vegetarian, hated the food,” Coleman said. “So he chartered a jet and they went to Milan for pasta with mushrooms.”

As a theater producer, Coleman still keeps her eye on the numbers, as she did at Apple. But she is thrilled to indulge her love of the stage, which started back home in Rhode Island, where, as a high schooler, she sang in the chorus and had comedic roles, and attended productions at the Trinity Repertory Theatre.

At Brown University, Coleman was an English literature major intent on going to law school or into government work. But the Watergate scandal marred those dreams for her.

She took a job at Texas Instruments, “and I got hooked,” Coleman remembered. “I thought that was the way to change the future.”

She got her MBA at Stanford, training in finance and accounting — but still was part of the theater group.

She worked at Hewlett-Packard and then joined Apple, where she put in 90 hours a week for four years of its formative years, serving as vice president of operations, chief financial officer and vice president of information systems and technology.

She remembered Jobs as a taskmaster. Unforgiving. But when she finally stood up to him, it changed her.

“I was 28 years old and this 26-year-old Steve Jobs had me in tears,” she recalled. “But that’s when I grew up.”

He could have led differently, she said, “and he could have accomplished as much.”

But he was also a romantic at heart who would have loved “A Room with a View.”

She saw the 2013 movie, “Jobs,” starring Ashton Kutcher, and thought he was spot on.

“It opens with Steve in a mock turtle, introducing the iPod, and I thought it was an actual video clip,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was (Kutcher).”

There is another movie in the works, written by Aaron Sorkin, and rumored to be directed by David Fincher and produced by Scott Rudin. It makes a sort of Silicon sense; all three teamed up for the Facebook pic, “The Social Network.”

Sorkin has tweeted that the film would consist of three, 30-minute scenes that take place backstage before a product launch.

“I am fascinated by the final third,” Coleman said, referring to the time after she left the company.

So who would play Coleman on the big screen?

“Kathy Bates,” she said. “That’s the rumor.”

She had her doubts, she said — not about Bates’ talent, but about whether her eyes are the right color. So she looked Bates up and was happy. They’re blue.

“They’re very pretty,” she said.

Though she added, “The only way she could play me is me today, looking back.”

For now, the only production she cares about is “Room,” which first started at the Running Deer Musical Theatre lab in the Columbia Valley. Coleman heard it as it was being written.

“And I thought, ‘This is better than ‘My Fair Lady!’ ”

She became an investor, co-producer, whatever you want to call it, Coleman said. She just wanted to be a part of this production, at this theater.

“I think of this place as the pre-eminent, musical-based, nonprofit theater,” she said. “It’s my favorite art form in the whole world. I call David Armstrong ‘The Alchemist’ because he just spins these things into gold.”

Maybe he would give her a walk-on role in “A Room with a View.”

“I’d be honored!” Coleman said. “I also wouldn’t mind a walk-on if it was at The Tony Awards.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com



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