Unlike many other fixtures of regional theatre who take stabs at New York and Hollywood before finding an artistic home, Mr. Noel, who began his career as an actor, spent almost all of his life in San Diego. He first appeared at the Globe in 1937 as a 22-year-old actor, acting in The Distaff Side. Two years later, he directed his first play at the theater, Edwin Justus Mayer's Firebrand. Shortly after he returned from World War II, in 1947, he was named resident director of the Globe, which he liked to call his cathedral. He would guide the theatre's fortunes for the next 35 years.
The Globe was built in 1935 as a temporary structure for the California Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park, presenting 50-minute versions of Shakespeare plays. After the exposition was over, it was turned into a popular community theatre. Under Mr. Noel, it became in 1949 the first professional Actors' Equity theatre on the West Coast with the debut of the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival. He directed more than 200 works and produced 270 at the theatre, and he helped raise funds to rebuild the theatre after it suffered two fires, in 1978 and 1984.
The Globe added a second theatre, the in-the-round Cassius Carter Theatre, in 1968, and a third, the outdoor Festival Stage, in 1978. Mr. Noel was also instrumental in creating the Master of Fine Arts in Acting program at the University of San Diego, in 1987.
Mr. Noel held the position of artistic director of the Old Globe until 1982, when Jack O'Brien assumed the role. But he stayed on as executive director, executive producer and, finally, founding director. In 2007 he received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush.
In 1984, two years after Mr. Noel relinquished the artistic directorship, the Globe received a Tony for outstanding American regional theater. Beginning in the late '80s, with Into the Woods, its productions have frequently been seen on Broadway and elsewhere since. "It seems impossible to contemplate a landscape without Craig Noel in it," O'Brien said in a statement. "He was my benign father. . . . He led by witty, loving example — never needlessly confronting, never challenging, always nurturing, always supportive and always, always charmingly funny. That is not an easy posture to maintain in our industry."
Craig Noel was born Aug. 25, 1915, in Deming, NM, and moved with his parents to San Diego as a child. After graduating from high school in 1934, Noel acted in local productions and worked odd jobs before arriving at the Globe.
"Can you think of anyone who's had as much fun as I have?" he asked San Diego Union Tribune theatre critic Bill Hagen in 1984. "I've gotten to play with toys my whole life in a beautiful park, surrounded by beautiful people, and I've gotten paid for it. Who could ask for more?"
Mr. Noel, who never married, has no immediate survivors. A memorial service is pending at the Old Globe.