Elliot Norton, Influential Boston Theatre Critic, Dead at 100

Obituaries   Elliot Norton, Influential Boston Theatre Critic, Dead at 100
Elliot Norton, the "Dean of American Theatre Critics" and the last of the great regional reviewers who exercised considerable influence over the fare seen on Broadway during it golden years, died July 20 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 100.

Mr. Norton first became a theatre critic in 1934 and did not retire until 1982. In his time, he wrote for The Boston Post, The Boston Record American, and The Boston Herald American (now The Boston Herald). Producers who tried their shows out of town before bringing them to Broadway anxiously awaited Mr. Norton's verdicts, and often consulted the critic directly as to how to improve their products.

In this way, his reviews were often as important to the success of a new play or musical as were those of the drama critics for The New York Times and other Gotham dailies. (Perhaps his only colleague in this respect was his contemporary Richard Coe, the longtime critic of Washington, D.C. productions.) Directors such as Mike Nichols and Joshua Logan considered Mr. Norton a reliable gage of public opinion. Producers like Alexander Cohen respected his reviews and frequently changed their attractions in response to his criticisms.

Such interaction between theatre artists and powerful out-of-town critics like Mr. Norton was common during the decades following World War II, when the lines separating those who created theatre and those who wrote about it were not so markedly drawn as they are today. Stricter journalistic ethics and an increasingly adversarial atmosphere between producers and critics have since made such interactions impossible. Regional critics still often advise new shows on what works and what doesn't—but only in print.

Neil Simon told the Boston Globe how Mr. Norton's input helped the development of The Odd Couple: ''He invited one the stars and the writer. He loved the play and gave it a wonderful review but he said the third act was lacking something. On the show he said, `You know who I missed in the third act was the Pidgeon Sisters,' and it was like a light bulb went off in my head. It made an enormous difference in the play. I rewrote it and it worked very well. I was so grateful to Elliot ... Elliot had such a keen eye. I don't know if he saved the play or not, but he made it a bigger success.''

Mr. Norton was born in Boston in 1903 and attended Harvard University, where he studied with George Pierce Baker, who taught a famous playwriting class at the time. After graduating, he was hired as a reporter for the Boston Post. In 1934, he became the paper's drama critic. The Post folded in 1956 and Mr. Norton went to the Record American, a Hearst paper. He won a George Jean Nathan award for drama criticism in 1964 and was given a special Tony Award in 1971. In 1982, the Elliot Norton Awards were established to honor theatre in the Boston area.

Mr. Norton cut an imposing figure. He was more than six feet tall and always nattily attired. Robert Brustein told the Globe, ''His appearance at a show - straight as a ramrod, impeccably dressed, elegant and distinguished - was a theatrical act in itself.''

His book, "Broadway Down East" was a collection of lectures he gave at the Boston Public Library.

Mr. Norton leaves a son, David A.; two daughters, Elizabeth N. Norton and Jane Norton Hardy; and three grandchildren. Burial will be in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. A funeral Mass will be held later this week at St. Patrick's in Watertown.

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