Carl Harms, a Major Player in Actors' Equity's Development, Dead at 94

Obituaries   Carl Harms, a Major Player in Actors' Equity's Development, Dead at 94
Carl Harms, actor, puppeteer and long-time board member of Actors' Equity Association who helped steer the union for more than 50 years, died Aug. 11 in New York City after a short illness, according to Equity.
Carl Harms
Carl Harms

Mr. Harms was 94. When he learned about Mr. Harms' death, Equity first vice president Mark Zimmerman shared this with colleagues: "I will always remember him proudly giving me a tour of his home — he lived as, and truly was, a renaissance man. He could recite Shakespeare, create puppets, climb to the top of his apple trees so that they could be trimmed every spring, and always, always fight for his fellow actors."

Born in Chicago, Mr. Harms began his career as a walk-on in Fritz Lieber's Shakespearean Theatre in 1930, appearing in six productions in repertory. He was part of the core group of actors whose work formed the basis for the Depression-era WPA Federal Theatre.

Through the Puppet Project sponsored by the WPA, Mr. Harms learned to carve and make puppets. He participated in the First American Puppetry Festival in Detroit in 1936 and was a charter member of the Puppeteers of America.

As a dancer, Mr. Harms joined the Illinois Theatre as part of the ballet corps in Oh Say Can You Swing. He then joined the Great Northern Theatre's Federal Ballet where he performed with such dance luminaries Katherine Dunham, Grace Cornell and Ruth Page.

Mr. Harms returned to acting, taking part in a touring production that brought him to New York City and the 1939 World's Fair. He called on his training with puppets and landed a job with the Marionettes, joining Bil Baird in 1940. In 1942, he signed up as a Merchant Marine, although he had been a conscientious objector to World War II. He served on a tanker in the African Invasion and later on a cargo ship deployed to the Normandy Invasion and to the Battle of the Bulge, where his ship arrived as the troops were moving out.

Back on American soil, he was offered a position with an acting company in New York City. He worked in summer stock with the Putnam County Playhouse with Molly Picon and others. In 1948 he joined again with Bil Baird, working on the television show "The Adventures of Snarky Parker," a daily program directed by Yul Brynner. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Harms met his future wife Marianne, an artist who also worked with Baird. They married in 1960.

Mr. Harms appeared in numerous TV productions including "The Tempest" with Roddy McDowell and Richard Burton, "Barefoot in Athens" with Peter Ustinov, Julie Harris, and Lynn Fontanne, and "A Cry of Angels" with Walter Slezak and Maureen O'Hara. He also worked on the popular children's program "Howdy Doody" and had a supporting role in "Johnny Jupiter," a live television program that was among the first programs to move to film for broadcast.

As part of Baird's company, Mr. Harms appeared on numerous television shows, including "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Show of Shows," and toured to India and the Soviet Union with the troupe.

According to Equity, one of the highlights for Harms was his involvement with the Gemini space walk in 1967 and the 1969 moon project. In both instances NBC retained the services of the Bil Baird Theatre to build replicas of the spacecrafts and to act out what was happening for the viewing public, including the first walk on the moon.

Mr. Harms made his Broadway debut in 1951 in Yip Harburg's musical Flahooley, in which he had a supporting role and made the puppets. He continued his stage work, appearing on Broadway in Much Ado About Nothing with Clare Booth Luce, Man in the Moon and Jose Quintero's production of The Girl on the Via Flamina at Circle in the Square. Other stage appearances included Wild Duck and Jolly Anna (a revised version of Flahooley) with Mitzi Gaynor, Bobby Clarke and John Deal as well as productions at the Walnut Street Theatre and Missouri Rep. He also directed stock and regional productions.

In the 1950s Mr. Harms became actively involved with Actors' Equity Association. A member of the union since 1946, "he decided to dedicate much of his time to helping shape the future of Equity," according to Equity. "Over the years, he served on numerous negotiating committees, including the historic first negotiation between the Union and the League of Resident Theatres in 1966. Harms was one of the leaders who fought to create a Pension Fund for actors and in 1960, after Broadway was closed down for seven days, one was created for Equity members which became the blueprint for pensions throughout the theatre industry."

He was a long-time member of The Council, Equity's governing body, and was active in countless committees and served as president of the Equity Realty Corporation, where he led the campaign to purchase the building at 165 West 46th Street where the national headquarters for the Union is now housed.

Mr. Harms was a founder and the current president of the Actors' Equity Foundation. Until his death, he served as the chair of the Staff Pension Fund and as the chair and secretary of the Equity-League Pension and Health Funds.

In addition to Actors' Equity Association, Carl has been a member of AFTRA, SAG, SSDC and ASCAP throughout his career.

Mr. Harms is survived by his daughters Merrill Mecklem Piera of Sundown, NY, and Sarah Greer Mecklem of Kingston, NY. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in his name to: The Goddard Riverside Community Center, Project Reachout/ Day Program - The Other Place, 593 Columbus Avenue, New York City or Planned Parenthood of New York.

A memorial service will be held in the near future.

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