Gene Feist, Founder of Roundabout Theatre Company, Dies at 91

By Robert Simonson
19 Mar 2014

Gene Feist, who in 1965 founded the theatre troupe that would grow into the multi-theatre Broadway behemoth, the Roundabout Theatre Company, died March 17 at the Lillian Booth Actor's Home in New Jersey. He was 91.



Today, the Roundabout commands five stages around and about Times Square: the American Airlines Theatre, Stephen Sondheim Theatre and Studio 54 on Broadway; and the Laura Pels Theatre and the Underground Black Box on West 46th Street Off-Broadway. It's considerably more real estate than Mr. Feist began with when, in 1965, he set up shop in a 150-seat theatre carved out of a converted supermarket basement on West 26th Street in Chelsea.

Mr. Feist and his wife, actress Elizabeth Owens, conceived of the Roundabout as a home to classics by Shaw, Pirandello, Ibsen and the like. (The first production was Strindberg's The Father.) "Everybody in New York was doing new plays; nobody was doing the classics," he said, years later. "Any new play must have some literary merit or historical reference to be put on by us." To encourage attendance, an inexpensive season subscription of $5 for three plays was offered. In its first season, the company had 400 subscribers.

Early productions attracted both established actors and rising stars such as Kim Hunter, Vincent Price, Irene Worth, Tammy Grimes, Malcolm McDowell and Philip Bosco. Feist directed most of the productions, which were frequently characterized as "respectable" and "stolid" by reviewers, but sometimes merited more fulsome praise. Some acclaimed revivals included Look Back in Anger in the 1979-80 season, A Taste of Honey in 1980-81 and Ah, Wilderness! in 1982-83. The shows were popular, however. By 1984, the company had 19,000 subscribers.

By the 1970s, however, the Roundabout was beset by financial troubles, caused, in part, by a move to a more spacious home on 23rd Street. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1978, and five years later, had amassed $2.5 million in debt. In 1984 it lost its lease on its 23rd Street home, which was being converted into a movie theatre. Eventually, the company found a new home in an old, much larger building off Union Square, which was formerly a headquarters for Tammany Hall.

In 1983, current artistic director Todd Haimes, then a young graduate of the Yale business school, was brought in as managing director and—with the help of the monetary largesse of board chairman at the time, Christian C. Yegen—began to right the Roundabout's financial ship, cutting staff and production costs. By 1986 he had decreased the company's debt by more than half and the Roundabout had the highest subscription base of any theatre in the city.

Describing the contrast between the two men, the New York Times wrote in 1986, "With his button-down shirts and conservative suits, [Haimes] is quite a contrast to his partner, Mr. Feist, who tends toward black turtlenecks and silver and turquoise rings, and still speaks in a ripe Brooklyn accent."

Mr. Feist stepped down as artistic director in 1988. In 1991 the Roundabout made an unprecedented leap for a New York nonprofit for the time, moving to Criterion Center, a former movie theatre, and thus becoming only the second nonprofit (after Lincoln Center Theater) to have a berth on Broadway.

Gene Feist was born in New York City on Jan. 16, 1923. In 1951 he graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology with a BFA in directing and playwriting. One year later, he received an MA from New York University in Educational Theatre. For the next few years he studied acting with Lee Strasberg.

In the 1950s and early '60s, he worked in various capacities at theatre such as Two by Four Theater, Stamford Playhouse, Renata Theatre (which he founded), Sharon Playhouse and New Theatre Nashville, where he was artistic director. In a two-year career tangent, he was a drama critic for the Chelsea-Clinton News from 1962-1964.