Sybil Christopher, Founder of Bay Street Theatre, Dies at 83

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10 Mar 2013

Sybil Christopher, the actress, director and nightclub owner who helped found Long Island's Bay Street Theatre and was its artistic director for 22 years, died March 9. She was 83.

Ms. Christopher founded the Bay Street Theatre with Emma Walton and Stephen Hamilton in Sag Harbor in 1991, after eyeing an old warehouse near the town pier that had once housed a discotheque and musing that it would make a nice theatre.

Bay Street began as a summer theatre, drawing on the talents of playwrights who lived locally, such as Joe Pintauro, Terrence McNally and Lanford Wilson. It easily attracted top New York actors to its idyllic, seaside locale. The premiere offering, Pintauro's Men's Lives, was based on a Peter Matthiessen book about Long Island fishermen. The Bay Street quickly became a local institution and eastern Long Island's most prominent theatre company.

Subsequent productions featured such actors as Daniel Gerroll, Ben Gazzara, Polly Draper, Kate Burton, Randy Graff, Mercedes Ruehl, Charles Busch, Richard Easton, Ron Rifkin, Hal Linden, Tony Roberts, Rachel York, B.D. Wong, Twiggy and many others. A few productions that were either developed or premiered at Bay Street transferred to New York stages. Today, the company operates year-round.

She stepped down as artistic director in 2012.



Sybil Williams was born in Tylorstown, South Wales, on March 27, 1929. Her childhood was marked by a series of deaths, beginning with the passing of her six-year-old brother. She lost her mother when she was ten, and her father, a coal minuer, when she was 15. After that, she went to live with her older sister and her husband in the Midlands.

In Northhampton, she began to visit a small local theatre, at which she eventually began to act. Ms. Christopher later claimed that, from age 15 to 18, she saw 52 plays a year. Deciding to pursue acting professionally, she applied to the London Academy of Dramatic Arts and was accepted. Before her schooling was completed, she began winning jobs. She performed at Stratford in Henry IV, in Harvey in the West End and a radio production of Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood.

While making what would become her only film, "The Last Days of Dolywyn," she met a young Welsh actor named Richard Burton. They were wed in 1948 and had two children, actress Kate Burton and Jessica, who suffered from autism. Soon after marrying, she withdrew from acting.

"I loved theater and what I was doing," she said in 1994, "but I certainly wanted to go as a wife to America when Richard was offered a job there. It was very clear to me that I wasn't making a sacrifice. I knew that Richard would have an exciting career and that it would be fun, two Welsh kids on the Queen Mary, traveling first-class."

Ms. Christopher became a supporting actress in a worldwide tabloid drama when her husband and Elizabeth Taylor, then married to singer Eddie Fischer, began an affair while making the film "Cleopatra." The Burtons were granted a divorce in Mexico in 1963.

Following the media circus that was her break-up with Burton, Ms. Christopher turned to a completely different career, opening the Manhattan nightclub Arthur. (It was named after a quip uttered in "A Hard Day's Night," when George Harrison is asked what he calls his hair style.) She raised the cash to set up the club by selling shares to showbiz pals including Roddy McDowell, Julie Andrews, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

For the next several years, there was no hotter discotheque in the city, and its owner was transformed from a jilted Hollywood wife to a sophisticated New York nightlife celebrity, lauded for her fashion sense and signature silver hair. Regulars included Tennessee Williams, Princess Margaret, Lee Remick, Nureyev, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol. She sold the club in 1969.

In 1966, she married Jordan Christopher, ten years her junior, and the singer of the Arthur house band The Wild Ones. He died in 1996. They had one child.