Craig Noel, Old Globe Founding Director, Dies at 94
Craig Noel, Founding Director of The Old Globe, died at his home in San Diego of natural causes on April 3. He was 94 years old.
Noel was a significant figure in the development of American theater, having led the Globe from its earliest days as a community organization to an internationally renowned institution. Over his more than 70-year career at the Globe, Noel directed more than 200 works, produced an additional 270 productions and created innovative and influential theater programs. In 2007, Noel received the National Medal of Arts – the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence – by President George W. Bush in a ceremony at the White House.
Noel had been in failing health but remained active through his unflagging support of live theatre. A memorial service to be held at The Old Globe will be announced at a later date.
“Craig Noel was among the last of a generation of artistic visionaries who established the first resident theater companies beyond the confines of Broadway,” said Globe Executive Producer Lou Spisto. “He dedicated his life to his art and singlehandedly made theater the center of San Diego’s cultural life. A pioneer in the national theater movement and theater education, his work had both regional and national impact. Craig was always in service to something bigger than his own artistic ego. For Craig it was his artists, his city and, ultimately, theater. He was the singular creative force behind The Old Globe for decades and I will always be grateful for the rare privilege and opportunity to have had Craig’s close counsel and sweet friendship over these past seven years.”
“It seems impossible to contemplate a landscape without Craig Noel in it,” said the Globe’s Artistic Director Emeritus, Jack O’Brien. “One of the originals, one of the giants of the regional industry, and, indeed, perhaps the lone survivor, when one lists the likes of Angus Bowmer, Bill Ball, Nina Vance, Eva Le Gallienne, and the other giants gone on before him that bestrode the mid-part of the last century, and who paved the way for so many of us to follow. He was my benign father; not the austere authority of John Houseman, nor, indeed, the colleague Ellis Rabb proved to be; instead, he led by witty, loving example – never needlessly confronting, never challenging, always nurturing, always supportive, and always, always charmingly funny. That is not an easy posture to maintain in our industry. He always said of the Globe, that it was his cathedral: indeed, it was! Spirituality, which is the heartbeat of the theatre, was his birthright and his shining sword: there was never another like him – nor, I am certain, will there ever be.”
Born on August 25, 1915 in New Mexico, Craig Noel moved to San Diego as a child. He began his association with the Old Globe in 1937 as an actor and later as a director. After fighting in the 37th Infantry for the liberation of the Philippines, Noel served in post-war Japan as director of the Ernie Pyle Theatre (Tokyo’s largest performance venue which Special Services operated for the entertainment of American forces) before returning to civilian life as one of two junior directors for 20th Century Fox alongside Orson Welles.
Noel returned to lead the Old Globe Theatre in 1947 and created one of nation’s most successful not-for-profit arts organizations, overseeing the expansion of the Globe to a Tony Award-winning three-theatre complex. In 1949, he launched the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival and ten years later guided the Globe from community to professional status, establishing the first full Actors’ Equity company in California. In the early 1960s, Noel developed an audience for new plays with seasons he programmed at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, exposing local audiences to such playwrights as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionèsco, Luigi Pirandello, Bertolt Brecht and Edward Albee. The success of that series led to a new play series at the Falstaff Tavern, later renamed Cassius Carter Centre Stage. In 1984, the Globe was the ninth theatrical institution selected to receive the Regional Theatre Tony Award.
Noel played an instrumental role in the careers of many theatre artists – including three-time Tony Award-winner Jack O’Brien, whom he hired as Artistic Director in 1981. Scores of distinguished American actors, including many who became well known to wider audience such as such as Marion Ross, David Ogden Stiers and Kelsey Grammer, have worked with Noel throughout the years and consider him their mentor.
His passion for arts education fueled many innovative programs, including the Globe Educational Tours in 1974, the renowned Master of Fine Arts graduate acting program (in conjunction with University of San Diego) in 1987, and Teatro Meta, the award-winning, bilingual playwriting program that served thousands of young people in the San Diego’s public schools, in 1983.
Noel’s many honors include the California Governor’s Award for the Arts, the Conservator of American Arts Award from the American Conservatory Theater, the University of Arizona Alumni Association’s Outstanding Citizen Award, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s list of 25 persons who shaped the city’s history, San Diego’s Living Treasure Award and the aforementioned National Medal of the Arts. The San Diego Drama Critics Circle named its annual honors the “Craig Noel Awards for Excellence in Theatre.” He was also the founder of the California Theatre Council and a former vice president of the California Confederation of the Arts.
Noel’s contributions to the American theatre – both locally and nationally – are beyond measure. He enriched the larger community through his support and encouragement of playwrights, actors and artists and through the nurturing of an entire generation of citizens who have become today’s theatregoers and supporters of the arts. Craig Noel was a guide, mentor and ally to virtually every professional theater endeavor in San Diego’s contemporary history and will be deeply missed.