Lowell Matson, the director-professor who founded the theatre department at Staten Island's Wagner College, a breeding ground for Broadway talent, died June 8 of a brain aneurysm in Valhalla, NY, according to The Staten Island Advance.
Dr. Matson, 79, affectionately called Doc, was a director and teacher who created Wagner's Department of Speech and Theater. He retired in 1987 after 19 years with the department, but not before working with students who would go on to Broadway and theatre-industry careers. Among those he worked with were Broadway actresses Janine LaManna, Randy Graff and Betsy Joslyn, actors Mark Chmiel, Vince D'Elia and Matt Lenz, stage manager Matt Silver (of Atlantic Theater Company), theatre writer Michael Portantiere, Jim Kane (a Broadway crew head) and press rep Charlie Siedenburg.
"Doc demanded excellence," remembered Siedenburg, who recalled the frequent cries of "Front! Front!" from Dr. Matson, who wanted his actors to be heard in the acoustic-unfriendly auditorium at the private liberal arts college. Dr. Matson was described to Playbill On-Line as "tough," "demanding" and, at times, "a tyrant." A screamer who would bring actors to tears, he was also called a leader who could get results and prepared his students for the harsh reality of the business.
He also connected his students to agents and other industry professionals, and offered varied programming, from Moliere to Shakespeare to musicals.
According to Gary Sullivan, chairmain of the division of performing and visual arts, when Dr. Matson was invited to begin the program, there was nothing more than a drama club at Wagner. There are now six full-time faculty members and 180 students in the multi-discpline program. Sullivan called it "an intensive conservatory." "He was a very strong personality, he was a very dramatic personality," Sullivan conceded. "He was a smart son-of-a-gun. He was one of those who saw there was a lot of potential here. Unfortunately, the first years he was here, the school was in decline — there were fewer people graduating from high school in the early '70s, demographically. But he was successful in building a program."
"He's credited for getting a lot of activity going," Sullivan told Playbill On-Line. "On Lowell's watch, we did one Shakespeare annually...there was a mainstage season and a studio season."
The program eventually became known primarily for its musical theatre efforts. "He helped put the college on the map in a lot of circles. It's not uncommon to see our students come from all over the globe," Sullivan said.
Dr. Matson taught theatre history and stage directing, and directed about half of the mainstage shows at Wagner for 19 years. His exit from the college was as theatrical as his work on stage: He plead guilty to having marijuana plants in his home and retired from Wagner in 1987.
He was a Cooperstown, NY, native who held bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in theatre and speech, from the University of Iowa. He served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific during World War II.
— By Kenneth Jones