Tim Kelly, Prolific Playwright for Amateur Market, Dead at 67


10 Dec 1998

Tim Kelly, thought to be the most-published playwright in America, died Dec. 7 after suffering a brain hemorrhage in his Hollywood, CA, home, according to his publisher.



Tim Kelly, thought to be the most-published playwright in America, died Dec. 7 after suffering a brain hemorrhage in his Hollywood, CA, home, according to his publisher.

Mr. Kelly, who was born in 1931, wrote more than 300 comedies, dramas, one-acts, mysteries, melodramas, children's shows and musicals, making his living writing for the stock, amateur and educational markets.

He wrote under his own name, and also at least four pseudonyms (Vera Morris, J. Moriarty, Robert Swift, Keith Jackson), for publishers such as Samuel French, Pioneer Drama Service and Contemporary Drama Service, among others.

Pioneer alone has 130 scripts by Kelly, according to Pioneer publisher Steven Fendrich. "It covers the gamut," Fendrich told Playbill On-Line Dec. 10. Mr. Kelly was the first playwright to sign up with the Colorado-based Pioneer when it was founded in 1967 by Fendrich's father.

"He's published by almost every single publishing company that I know of," Fendrich said.

Mr. Kelly, a Massachusetts native, attended Emerson College in Boston and earned a master's degree in playwriting at Yale University, according to a story that ran in The Washington Post several years ago. He wrote for such TV series as "Here Come the Brides" and penned exploitation films such as "Black Street Fighter."

But it was his amazing output for the amateur market that filled his days, according to Fendrich. Pioneer licenses about 3,000 Kelly productions worldwide every year. Contemporary has about 25 Kelly properties, according to its president, Mark Zapel, who guessed several hundred Kelly works from Contemporary are produced annually.

Mr. Kelly's simple, formulaic work was a hit with amateur groups: Full length scripts were usually on one-set, had large casts to accommodate a theatre group's need to include a lot of members, and tended to include many female roles, as women audition more often than men.

Arthur L. Zapel, editor of Contemporary Drama Service in Colorado Springs, CO, said, "Tim Kelly probably created more bizarre comedy characters and farcical plays than 10 of Broadway's best writers... His king-size talent for humor opened the way for countless numbers of young amateurs to discover the fun of theatre."

His most popular Contemporary works include Lucky, Lucky Hudson and the 12th Street Gang, The Phantom of the Op'ry and Is There a Doctor in the House? His last submission to Contemporary was an adaptation of Kipling's The Adventures of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a children's story.

Many of his plays were adapted into popular musicals by their publishers, and he often did not meet his collaborators; the scripts were simply turned over to songwriters. Songwriter Bill Francoeur added songs to nine Kelly plays before they pair ever met, Fendrich said.

"He would write plays that would spoof something that was already well known, filling a huge gap for the amateur market unable to produce plays like Cats or Phantom of the Opera," said Michigan lyricist Mike Vigilant, who added songs to Contemporary's hit Phantom of the Op'ry. That show was the top rental for Contemporary in 1991.

"Most everything he did would be g-rated, for a general audience," Vigilant said, adding that his other collaborations with Mr. Kelly were Recess (a school comedy), Midas and the Palace of Gold, Bedside Manor (from the Kelly play Hospital) and an adaptation of The Jungle Book, among others.

Popular titles from Pioneer, his primary publisher, include such plays (which later became musicals) as Krazy Kamp, Groovy!, Nifty Fifties, Aliens Are Coming! Aliens Are Coming!, Bang Bang, You're Dead and Help! I'm Trapped in a High School! "Tim never really cared about Broadway at all," Pioneer's Fendrich said. "He was very much dedicated to educational theatre, plays where you would have 30 parts. Tim wrote with the formula that nobody else has been able to get a hold of: Simple set, fun parts, roles for everybody. Every year we have people calling up and asking, 'What's your next Tim Kelly play?'"

The way Fendrich and Mr. Kelly wrote was like Hollywood studio script meetings of yore. Fendrich said, "He was so open to writing anything. We would talk on the phone and I would say, 'You know, it's time for a '60s musical. And he' d say, 'Let's call it Groovy!' [We knew] it could not have sex, violence or be anti-war because it's going to be done in schools. Six weeks later, on my desk, I'd have the play, Groovy!, which would be "The Brady Bunch" version of the 60s. I would hand it to [songwriter] Bill Francoeur, and it would become a musical."

The last thing Mr. Kelly was working on for Pioneer was a 1920 pastiche called, Flapper!, which apparently was not finished. The most recent play to be published for Pioneer was Cocoanut High, about a group of people trying to opening up an island high school.

"He had said he wanted to slow down," Fendrich said. "We realized Tim Kelly was not going to go on forever. He made his plays in such a way that he will go on forever. Within his formula of playwriting, he made it so his plays would never date themselves."

Fendrich continued, "You're never going to go up to anybody on the streets of New York and ask if they've heard of Aliens Are Coming!; you have to go see a middle school production of it, to see kids do these shows, and see every kid being able to have a part. He loved the idea of getting the work out and getting it to people. And not worrying about all the rigmarole it takes to get to Broadway."

When Fendrich asked Mr. Kelly what satisfied him most in life, the reply was, "Finishing the work."

A Tim Kelly Collection had previously been established at the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center and Emerson College has twice honored him for his "Contributions to the Field of Playwriting."

Kelly will be cremated; per his request, there are no services planned.

-- By Kenneth Jones