James B. McKenzie, former executive producer of the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, died Feb. 20 after a battle with cancer and pneumonia, leaving behind a rich and varied theatrical career, including 41 years helming one of the nation's major summer stock theatres.
Mr. McKenzie, 75, left Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT, January 2000. His plan was to focus on commercial theatre. One of his many ventures over the years was running JBM Productions, which produces road tours and licenses plays in the United States and Canada.
"It's been a good run: 419 plays and lots of theatrical adventures, but it's time to produce once again in the commercial theatre, where I belong," Mr. McKenzie said at the time.
A native of Appleton, WI, where, in grade school, he played the lead in his own version of Hamlet, Mr. McKenzie would work all over the United States as a stage manager, press agent, actor, stagehand, producer and general manager. His career spanned more than half a century in the professional theatre with over 2,000 productions. Over the years, he was the producer or general manager many regional theatres, including the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT, Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, CA, the Peninsula Players Theatre in Fish Creek, WI, Mineola (Long Island) Playhouse and the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Palm Beach, FL.
McKenzie began his 56 career at Peninsula Players just after World War II as an intern, said Todd Schmidt, general manager of the summer theatre. He went on to be everything from an actor to a stage manager. For the last 30 years, he served as executive producer, selected the Fish Creek season each year and cast the ensemble. Mr. McKenzie produced plays on Broadway, including And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, The Girl in the Freudian Slip and The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild. He also produced over 60 national and international tours — including tours of Russia, Japan, South America, and every state in the U.S. except Alaska.
He operated theatre restaurants in such cities as San Francisco, Palm Beach and Westport. In the early 1950s he helped create over 100 first time live television shows for NBC, and later produced seven television plays for PBS. He also co-owned the Merrill-McKenzie advertising agency.
Mr. McKenzie was an active member of the League of American Theatres and Producers, vice president of the Council of Stock Theatres, president of the Council of Resident Summer Theatres, executive producer of the Connecticut Theatre Foundation, a trustee of the Actors' Equity Association Pension and Health Fund, a member of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, the Actors' Equity Association and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
He was the recipient of the St. Mary Alumni Achievement Award, the Conservator of American Arts Award, the Connecticut Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Contribution to Theatre, and was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Town of Westport in 1998.
He was an avid sailor, an experienced ocean navigator and took part in many Newport-to-Bermuda sailboat races.
Mr. McKenzie had a BA from the University of Iowa and an MA from Columbia University. He served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II.
He is survived by his wife, Philisse Barrows; his four children, David James, Kevin John, Amy Marie and Agatha Halekulani; two grandchildren, Valia and Gwendolyn; two brothers and two sisters.
A service to celebrate his life will be held at a future date. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Actors Fund, 729 7th Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019. The Collins Funeral Home of Norwalk CT is in charge of arrangements.
Schmidt said a memorial will be held in Door County, WI, later this year, when the weather gets warmer. Mr. McKenzie's ashes will be scattered on the Peninsula Players grounds, a peaceful wooded plot bordering the shores of Green Bay.
In 1930, the Westport Country Playhouse was founded by one of the great names in American theatre, Lawrence Langner (who was actually born in Wales) and his wife, Armina Marshall. They purchased a 100-year-old cow barn in an apple orchard adjacent to the Post Road in what was then the fringes of Westport.
According to the playhouse history statement, written by Mr. McKenzie, they commissioned designer Cleon Throckmorton to transform the interior of the barn, by then a tanning factory, into a theatre.
In 1931, the curtain went up on the first production at the Westport Country Playhouse. By 2000, more than 700 plays have been produced and almost four million people have attended.
Performers over the years have included Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Ethel Barrymore, Tyrone Power, Jessica Tandy, Gene Kelly and Tallulah Bankhead. More than 75 new works premiered at Westport and transferred to Broadway.
The famed Langner (1890-1962) helped found The Washington Square Players, The Theatre Guild and American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT.
Visit the website at www.westportplayhouse.com.
— By Kenneth Jones
and Robert Simonson