Lucille Lortel, dubbed "Queen of Off-Broadway" for her early and continuing efforts to produce and promote new or underappreciated playwrights in Manhattan's smaller-venue professional theatres, died April 4 at New York Presbyterian Hospital after a brief illness.
Ms. Lortel, the producer and former Broadway actress whose Theatre DeLys in Greenwich Village was ground zero for the term "Off-Broadway," turned 98 Dec. 16, 1998.
Ironically, the Lucille Lortel Awards, celebrating outstanding Off Broadway work, are to be announced April 6, the day of her private Manhattan funeral. Her ashes will be interred at the Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-On-Hudson, NY, April 8.
Predeceased by her industrialist husband, Louis Schweitzer, Ms. Lortel was born Lucille Wadler in New York City. She studied acting and theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and with Arnold Korff in Europe. She acted in stock before she made her Broadway debut in 1925 under the name Lucille Lortel in the Theatre Guild's Caesar and Cleopatra, with Helen Hayes.
A reluctant socialite wife who married in 1931, Ms. Lortel nevertheless found her way into films ("The Man Who Laughed Last," one of the first "talkies") and plays. She converted a white barn on the Schweitzer estate in Westport, CT, into a classic American summer stock house. It was first lighted in 1947 with a new work, Painted Wagon, by Philip Huston and Elizabeth Goodyear. The venue offered readings and full stagings of new works by Americans, and experimental dramas or American premieres of work by O'Casey, Ionesco, Ukio Mishima, Beckett and others. For a time, Ms. Lortel, the barn's artistic director, established a theatre training program at the estate. In 1997, the White Barn celebrated its 50th year.
In 1955, Mr. Schweitzer bought Ms. Lortel the Theatre DeLys on Christopher Street, as an anniversary present. She reinstalled the Marc Blitzstein translation of The Threepenny Opera at the theatre (the previous staging of the show had been forced to close) and it ran for seven years, regenerating post-war American interest in the Brecht-Well musical. It also helped put "Off Broadway" -- smaller venues, riskier material -- on the map.
With the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA), she established a matinee series on the DeLys stage during the day, with Threepenny playing nights, giving voice to emerging playwrights for 20 years. The first show, a stage adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country, starred Earle Hyman and Rosetta LeNoire.
Over the years, Ms. Lortel produced more than 500 works, and championed writers such as Athol Fugard and Larry Kramer.
Among her producing credits, which include a several generations of writers, are the American premiere of Fugard's The Blood Knot in 1964; Sean O'Casey's Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, I Knock at the Door and Pictures in the Hallway; Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill directed by Donald Saddler; Tom Cole's Medal of Honor Rag; Marsha Norman's Getting Out; Mbongemi Ngema's Woza Albert!; Jane Anderson's The Baby Dance; and Larry Kramer's The Destiny of Me.
"I think she liked theatre that made people think...provocative, challenging, anything new," said George Forbes, associate general manager of the Lucille Lortel Theatre. "She loved the perspective of different cultures, that's why it was important for her to do Fugard, Genet and O'Casey.
Her mantle was cluttered with awards and citations from colleagues and governments. She was a tireless arts and community philanthropist, donating money to New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Tape project and Yale's playwriting program, among many projects.
Ms. Lortel often hosted readings at her theatre, and in her apartment, and was passionate about taking Off-Broadway-style, non-commercial work outside of New York -- to Washington D.C., Russia, London and elsewhere. It was in D.C. that Washington Post critic Richard Coe crowned Lortel "The Queen of Off-Broadway."
Theatre DeLys was renamed the Lucille Lortel in 1980. It is now operated by a non-profit presenting-producing organization (the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation) that Lortel was in charge of, according to Forbes. He told Playbill On-Line April 5 the billing for the upcoming Lucille Lortel Theatre staging of Noel and Gertie will still read in "by special arrangement with Lucille Lortel."
Forbes said up until the last six months, Ms. Lortel was a "constant" theatregoer. "She tried to go to every show as a Tony (Award) voter -- I think she went to more than most voters," he said. She was still artistic director of her theatre.
"She was really active and she never revealed her age, and she hated when people made her age the important factor about her," said Forbes. "We all feel sort of guilty about it being revealed, finally. She was amazing."
Good-humored and stylish, Ms. Lortel always looked impeccable in public, her makeup just right and her coiffure just so. She was, after all, said Forbes, a former actress who knew the value of good presentation.
"She was born in 1900," said Forbes. "She started producing in what was very much a man's field. She was a bit of a trailblazer for women in the industry and in general. [But] she was always very careful to be professional in her bios. It was never about her personally."
He added, "Anybody she worked with, she had a personal relationship with. That personal relationship made you work that much harder for her. She was kind and generous but demanding and knew what she wanted."
Above all, she prized playwrights, Forbes said. "She had tremendous respect for everybody in the theatre, but the thing she admired the most was the writer."
It was Ms. Lortel who recently came up with the idea of putting playwrights' names in brass stars in the sidewalk in front of the Lortel, following similar traditions in Hollywood. This year, she chose songwriters Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (The Fantasticks) as the new additions to the Playwrights Sidewalk.
Ms. Lortel is survived by nephews Rodney and Michael Mayo and nieces Lynn Mayo-Cole and Penny Mayo, the children of her late brother, violinist Waldo May.
A public memorial will be announced.
The Lucille Lortel Awards, celebrating outstanding work in venues, is run by the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, and are chosen by a panel of theatre writers.
They will be announced April 6. The awards ceremony is May 3 at Lucille Lortel Theatre.