In addition to his wife, Camilla Samuelson, daughter Debra Samuelson of New York City, and three grandchildren, Mr. Samuelson, 77, has left behind generations of people who attended his Loch Sheldrake, NY, camp since it was founded in 1975.
The still-popular camp was the inspiration for Todd Graff's recent movie, "Camp," which featured Mr. Samuelson in a cameo.
Graff was a onetime Stagedoor Manor camper and later counselor. Over the years, Mr. Samuelson called his charges his "babies," and in recent years, when Tony Award-nominee Graff was in his forties, Mr. Samuelson still called him his baby.
Among the former camp kids who would go on to greater fame are Jon Cryer, Natalie Portman, Mandy Moore, Michelle Federer, Danny Gurwin, Zach Braff, Robert Downey Jr., Yancy Arias, Josh Charles, Jeanine Tesori, Julia Murney, Nicky Silver, Mary Stuart Masterson, Jeff Blumenkrantz and countless more who stayed in show business.
Mr. Samuelson founded the camp with his first wife, Elsie, and oversaw it to the end of his life. Elsie died in 1999. A dual passion for theatre and kids inspired the Samuelsons to create stage door, which they staffed with artistic professionals to handle the several sessions each summer. Daughter Cynthia Samuelson, of Boston, said she and her sister are still active in the camp operation. She said she will now assume the leadership role there.
Mr. Samuelson, who split his time between Delray Beach, FL, and Loch Sheldrake, "was an incredibly energetic and vivacious person" who adored Shakespeare and poetry, his daughter said.
In an earlier career, the Bronx native was a builder and later took special pride overseeing the construction aspects of his performing arts campus. Around age 75, he decided he shouldn't be climbing on roofs anymore, Cynthia said.
The origin of the camp was simple: "He and my mom just loved theatre and loved children, and they had friends who were involved in theatre and camping — that's how they got he idea to put both together," Cynthia said.
"What he thought was his most important job was getting to know the people there," his daughter said. "He was very much a people person."
The Samuelsons were always aware they were taking care of other peoples' children and viewed the responsibility as sacred. Former campers would keep in touch with the Samuelsons, even if career paths did not lead to showbiz. Cynthia said her parents would also protect the identity of kids whose parents were stars.
Staff members were considered family, and many loyal staffers returned year after year. Adults who attended the camp as kids now send their own kids, between ages 8-18, to Loch Sheldrake.
In addition to his camp role up north, in the 1990s Mr. Samuelson produced a handful of shows, including Annie Warbucks and Me and My Girl, in Southern Florida.
Although he did not seek attention from the press, Mr. Samuelson influence on modern theatre cannot be overstated, some observe. Stagedoor Manor staff and student alumni represent many people in the TV, film, Broadway and regional theatre community. Some would go on to win or be nominated for Academy Awards and Tony Awards.
Mrs. Samuelson's 1999 funeral overflowed with alumni and friends, her daughter said. Some former campers will likely pay their respects at an April 25 service with their own kids, who are now regulars at Stagedoor.
A funeral service will be held 10 AM April 25 at the Community Synagogue of Rye, NY, 200 Forest Ave.
For more information about Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center, visit www.stagedoormanor.com.