The Village Voice was a young paper and Mr. Tallmer its young theatre critic when, in 1955, he decided the burgeoning Off-Broadway scene south of 14th Street merited a practical response outside of weekly reviews. He hatched the idea of the Obie Awards, a downtown answer to the uptown Tonys. (The name is derived from the first letters of Off-Broadway.)
The awards differed from the Tonys and others in that there were no nominations. Prizes were simply given to those artists and scripts that were thought to be deserving. When no one was thought deserving of, say, the title of Best American Play, no award was given. In choosing the recipients, Mr. Tallmer was typically joined by fellow critics such as Harold Clurman as well as practitioners like playwright Edward Albee.
The notion quickly drew attention. "I was sitting at my desk and I got a call from Sam Zolotow," recalled Mr. Tallmer years later, referring to the zealous theatre reporter who for many decades covered stage news for the New York Times. "He said, "Tallmer! This is Zolotow! Now, what about these Obies?!"
The Obie Award directed a new kind of attention and prestige to the actors and playwrights slaving away in converted churches and lofts along the streets of Greenwich Village and the East Village. Early Obies went to Jose Quintero and Jason Robards Jr. (both for their historic 1956 revival of The Iceman Cometh), Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott—all artists who were then largely unknown. For many struggling actors, an Obie was often the first important recognition they received. Because of that, even today many famous performers talk about the Obies with a certain depth of feeling they don't lavish on other awards organizations.
Mr. Tallmer attended theatre performances wherever he could find them, and chronicled what he saw with care, insight and enthusiasm. Theatre artists appreciated his attentions. "In 1965, we took our productions to Europe," recalled Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa ETC, "because, with the exception of Jerry Tallmer, none of the critics would come." In 1962, he received the George Jean Nathan Award in Drama Criticism for the 1960-61 season. In 1964, he won a grant from the Ford Foundation. In 1968, he was invited by the O'Neill Theatre Foundation to become a faculty member of a new formed Critics Institute.
In addition to his duties as theatre critic, he was also associate editor at The Voice, and had a hand in hiring then-unknown writers such as Nat Hentoff and cartoonist Jules Feiffer.
In 1962, he left The Voice and took a job as a drama reporter and critic at the New York Post, lured to the paper by the famed columnist Murray Kempton. He stayed for more than 30 years. During his long tenure, the daily changed hands many times, going through publishers Dorothy Schiff, Rupert Murdoch, Peter Kalikow, Abe Hirschfeld, and then Murdoch again. However, though The Post was a bigger paper with a wider circulation, Mr. Tallmer never again wielded the same influence in theatre circles that he had at The Village Voice.
Mr. Tallmer was dismissed from the Post in 1993 when Murdoch broke the newspaper union and fired 287 people. Later, he worked as an editor at Penthouse. He also wrote frequently for Playbill. In recent years, Mr. Tallmer—who seemed incapable of not writing, and produced thousands of articles over his long career—kept his hand in theatre journalism by writing a regular stage column for The Villager, the weekly Greenwich Village paper. As usual, his stories betrayed a curious mind, quirky writing rhythms and a deep knowledge of theatre history.
Jerry Tallmer was born Dec. 9, 1920. He graduated from the Lincoln School of Teachers College in 1938. He enlisted in the U.S. Army a few days after Pearl Harbor and was a Radio/Radar Man in the US Army Air Force. Following the war, he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1946.
Jerry Tallmer was married three times. Each union ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Frances Martin, a son, Matthew, and a daughter, Abby.