Gene Persson, Producer of Dutchman and Charlie Brown, Dies at 74

Obituaries   Gene Persson, Producer of Dutchman and Charlie Brown, Dies at 74
Gene Persson, a theatre producer responsible for such diverse productions as LeRoi Jones' tense racial drama, Dutchman, and the musical, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, died on June 6 in Manhattan at a Times Square pizzeria. He was 74. A heart attack was the cause.

Mr. Persson began his association with the African-American poet and playwright LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) in 1964, when he produced his two one-acts The Toilet and The Slave Off-Broadway. The next year, he created a sensation by producing in Los Angeles what would become Mr. Jones' most famous work, Dutchman. The short play recounts the racially charged encounter on a subway between an educated, bookish black man and a taunting young white woman. Some critics hailed it as a new advance in drama while others reviled it as foul-mouthed trash. Mr. Persson later produced it in London and New York City. He made it into a film in 1967, starring his then-wife, actress Shirley Knight.

The producer went after a completely different audience when he produced the sweet-minded musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, an adaptation of Charles Schulz's popular "Peanuts" comic strip. He and Arthur Whitelaw also helped to co-create the book, which was credited to the fictional John Gordon. It opened at Theater 80 St. Marks and became one of the longest-running Off-Broadway hits in history. It has remained a favorite of regional and community theatres every since. Two attempts to make the show work on Broadway — in 1971 and 1999, both involving Mr. Persson — failed.

Mr. Persson's success as a producer was primarily confined to Off-Broadway and London, where he enjoyed long relationships with several playwrights. He produced three later-day production of Tennessee Williams, The Red Devil Battery Sign, This Is (An Entertainment) and a U.K. revival of The Glass Menagerie. He produced the first five plays by British playwright Peter Barnes, the most notable among them being The Ruling Class.

On Broadway, his The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald lasted only three previews in 1967. The Sudden & Accidental Re-education of Horse Johnson the next year sustained itself for only four performances more. Lyle Kessler's The Watering Place, in 1968, also closed after seven shows. And 1974's Rainbow Jones, which was also directed by Mr. Persson, closed on opening night. It starred Mr. Persson's co-producer and second wife, Ruby Persson.

Eugene Clair Persson, born on Jan. 12, 1934, in Long Beach, CA, had a difficult childhood. His father, Oscar, a seaman, vanished when he was 12, and his mother, Leah Krascoff, later placed him in an orphanage. There, his cute blonde, blue-eyed looks were noticed and soon he began acting in film, notably as a hick kid in the Ma and Pa Kettle series. He married Shirley Knight in 1959 and they had one child, actress Kaitlin Hopkins. The couple divorced in 1969. Mr. Persson is survived by Ms. Hopkins, his wife Ruby, and his children Lukas Persson and Markus Persson.

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