T. Edward Hambleton, Founder of Phoenix Theatre, Is Dead at 94

Obituaries   T. Edward Hambleton, Founder of Phoenix Theatre, Is Dead at 94
T. Edward Hambleton, the courtly but determined man who ran New York's Phoenix Theater from 1953 to 1983, died Dec. 18 in Baltimore, the New York Times reported. He was 94 and lived in Cockeysville, Maryland.

He was born in that state on Feb. 11, 1911, to a wealthy banking family. But Mr. Hambleton wanted nothing of the banking life and, after graduating from Yale in 1935, set out on a life in the theatre, never looking back.

He produced a series of Broadway flops in the late '30s and early '40s (including Robin Landing, a verse play about the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1793), before finding his calling in the Phoenix, which he founded with Norris Houghton. Mr. Hambleton was a Yalie and Houghton was a Princeton man, and the two concocted the project, fittingly enough, at the Players Club. "Anyone who had seen us in the Players Club dining room that April day would have taken us for a couple of Ivy League WASPs," Mr. Houghton recalled in his memoir "Entrances and Exits," "which indeed we were."

Frustrated by the rising costs on Broadway, and their negative effect on the artistic ambitions of theatrical producers, their dream was to present several plays a year, far from Times Square, with a top ticket price of $3.30. Mr. Hambleton coined the theatre's name. "One of the reasons for doing the Phoenix is that we would be able to do some of the classical plays," Mr. Hambleton said. "And the first year, we did Coriolanus and The Seagull. We thought we were the artistic directors. The artistic director was certainly not a species at that time. There were just directors and producers.”

The Phoenix set up shop the old Yiddish Art Theater on Second Avenue and 12th Street. Their first season was one of the triumphs of the then-nascent Off-Broadway universe. It began with Sidney Howard's Madam, Will You Walk?, starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn; and continued with Coriolanus, starring Robert Ryan, directed by John Houseman; and The Seagull, starring Montgomery Clift in his last stage appearance

The final show of the season, however, made the biggest splash. It was The Golden Apple, a musicalization of "The Iliad," by Jerome Moross and John LaTouche. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, later transferred to Broadway, and won the new outfit a spot on the cover of Life magazine. Observers would later point to that initial season as the high point in the Phoenix's three-decade career and one it ever after struggled to top. The theatre continued to produce landmark productions, however. Joan Plowright made her New York debut at the Phoenix in Ionesco's The Chairs and The Lesson; Tyrone Guthrie directed Irene Worth and Eva LeGalliene in Mary Stuart; Frank Gilroy's first major play, Who'll Save the Plowboy?, premiered there; June Havoc starred in The Beaux Stratagem; Carol Burnett was discovered in the musical Once Upon a Mattress; and Uta Hagen headlined in A Month in the Country, an experience Hagen would later call one of her favorites in the theatre.

The Phoenix went through many transformations over the years, changing both its location and its artistic focus several times—a heterogeneity of purpose for which critics often faulted it. The company became a not-for profit in 1957 after four seasons in the red. It left its Lower East Side home in 1961, moving to a 300-seat theatre on East 74th Street. There it enjoyed a huge hit with Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, a show directed by Jerome Robbins and starring two newcomers named Barbara Harris and Austin Pendleton. Soon after Mr. Houghton left the company to become the head the drama department at Vassar College. A few years later, the troupe joined forces with Ellis Rabb's Association of Producing Artists.

Its final home was the Marymount Manhattan Theater, where Mr. Hambleton did perhaps his most significant work since the late '50s, producing plays by rising dramatists like Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman, and casting unknown actors such as Glenn Close and Meryl Streep.

In a 2000 article for the New York Times (written by this reporter), Mr. Hambleton said of his company: "I think it's a legacy of the outfit that may not have been completely successful in its line of production, but opened the boundaries beyond what was being done and showed a lot of people who might not have know about it, that these things could be done. And that's the thing I'm most proud of."

Through all these changes, Mr. Hambleton—who was known by colleagues and friends simply at "T"—eschewed the stormy ways of many another producer, and retained the polite, thoughtful demeanor of his white-shoe, prep-school upbringing. He did not meddle with the artists' work, leaving them alone once he brought them together. He rarely raised his voice, and was known for his long pauses, which Houghton described as being "as famous as Chekhov's but more prolonged and less pregnant."

Mr. Hambleton won a special Tony Award in 2000. Earlier this year, Harold Prince—who remained a fan of Mr. Hambleton ever since he gave him his first directing job—helped create the T Fellowship at Columbia University to "support and develop emerging theatrical producers," the Times reported.

Another of Mr. Hambleton's admirers was Bertolt Brecht. He had produced the American premiere of Brecht's Galileo in 1947. During the run, Brecht, then living in the U.S., was called before the House Committee on Un American Activities. Mr. Hambleton took the playwright to the hearing and then, right afterwards, brought him to the airport, where Brecht was met by some Hambleton lawyers and put on a plane headed for the safety of Switzerland.

T. Edward Hambleton (left), with Norris Houghton.
T. Edward Hambleton (left), with Norris Houghton.
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