Haila Stoddard, Broadway Actress and Producer, Dies at 97

Obituaries   Haila Stoddard, Broadway Actress and Producer, Dies at 97
 
Haila Stoddard, an unusual Broadway artist who transitioned from actress to producer during a lengthy theatre career, died at her home in Weston, CT. The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest. She was 97.

As an actress, Ms. Stoddard performed in a wide variety of Broadway plays in the 1930s and 1940s, including I Know What I Like, Kindred, Suzanna and the Elders, The Moon Vine and Springtime for Henry, none of which were particularly successful. She experienced greater success, however, when she began producing in the 1950s, bringing James Thurber's A Thurber Carnival and The Beast in Me, Noel Coward's Sail Away and Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party to Broadway. Her sole Tony Award nomination was as producer of the 1961 Coward musical.

Born Nov. 14, 1913, in Great Falls, Montana, to Canadian Mormons, her family moved to Los Angeles when she was eight, and she attended the University of Southern California. She began her career in 1934 in a California production of Kaufman and Hart's Merrily We Roll Along. The next two years, she toured with the popular hit Tobacco Road. The play was adapted for the stage by Jack Kirkland. He would become the second of her four husbands. Together, they had two children.

Perhaps her best known stage performance was as one of the Marthas that followed Uta Hagen in the original production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (She replace Elaine Stritch, who starred in Ms. Stoddard's Sail Away. Frequently, she understudied bigger stars such as Jessica Tandy, Rosalind Russell and Greer Garson. On television, where she acted in many live dramas in the early days of the medium, she gained notice as the villainess Aunt Pauline on the soap opera "The Secret Storm," from 1954 through the 1960s.

She was also one of the founders of the Bucks County Playhouse, once one of the primary summer stock theatres in the Northeast. There, she appeared in a total of 16 productions, including Biography and The Philadelphia Story, and reigned for several seasons as the playhouse's leading lady. A few plays that began there, and in which she starred, such as Springtime for Henry and Dead Pigeon, eventually played on Broadway.

Other Broadway producing efforts were The Affair, The Hollow Crown and The Beast in Me. Her final Broadway producing credit was Lanford Wilson's The Gingham Dog in 1969, but she continued to produce Off-Broadway, backing such works as Wilson's Lemon Sky in 1970, the award-winning Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford musical The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, and Murray Schisgal's Luv in 1984. Many of her productions featured future stars at the beginnings of their careers, including Chrisopher Walken, Charles Durning, F. Murray Abraham, Mary Alice, Nathan Lane and Brent Spiner As a producer, she did not shy away from tough decisions. During the rehearsals of The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, she grew concerned that director Word Baker couldn't seem to make the quirky musical gel properly. Previews were troubled. Ms. Stoddard responded by ordering that the sets be removed immediately after opening. Once the reviews came out, and were raves, the sets stayed of course. Three of her marriages ended in divorce. The fourth, to Whitfield Conner, ended with his death in 1988. She is survived by sons Christopher Kirkland, daughter Robin Kirkland MacDonald of Manhattan, stepdaughter, Erin Connor, seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

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