Home > Carol Davis, Theatre > Craig Noel as I remember him

Craig Noel as I remember him

Craig Noel with his bust

By Carol Davis

Carol Davis

SAN DIEGO — It’s not my intention to write another obituary about Craig Noel. So many others have already written volumes. He died peacefully April 3rd 2010 at home surrounded by his loved ones. He was 95. If you opened any newspaper that day and read either the Arts or obituary section or both you would have read all the news and then some about him; how and when he came to San Diego and his accomplishments in our fair city and particularly at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.

Craig Noel was a fixture here in San Diego for as long as I’ve been alive. He came here in 1937 and well… By the time I arrived here in 1959, he was already a living legend. By the time I was reviewing theatre his was a household name when it came to theatre talk.

I will never forget stories my long ago friend Fran Bardacke (she used to review theatre for the San Diego Magazine) would tell me about writing a play The Ballad of Yankee Jim that was produced at the Whaley House in 1966 and put on by the Tanner Troupe. I believe there was a Craig Noel story there, but I can’t say for sure.

She was colleague of Noel’s at the beginnings of his career with The Old Globe. I wish I had paid better attention to the stories she told of their escapades. But she was one of the old timers who could remember him best then along with the others who spoke at his Memorial. (Back to that later)

I can’t say I was a personal friend, although as most in my position as theatre critic, I knew as much about him as was revealed in the papers, to each other or in shoptalk or in interviews. I never interviewed him, but somehow I was invited to his 70th birthday party. I got to see the twinkle in his eyes up close and personal at least once a year at the San Diego Theater Critics Circle Awards night.

He was the man of honor at our event giving out awards. My colleagues and I appropriately name our awards ceremony, honoring some of the best in San Diego Theatre for /after him; “The Craig Noel Awards For Theatre Excellence.” He was so shy about it but the artists who received the plaques bearing his name will become treasures.  He did this for the last five years of his life.  That was a treat.  

His many accomplishments either preceded or followed him and he was always busy improving and contributing to the well being of not just The Old Globe, but also other local venues as well being an advocate on the national scene. For someone as busy as he, it always amazed me to see him attending other local productions. He always impressed me as a shy man, and yet he was always surrounded by those who just wanted to be in his company.

Being a personal friend or someone he met on occasion never seemed to matter, though. Whenever we met either going to or coming from a performance or just in the courtyard of the Old Globe, he always wore that irresistible smile. He was always present and eager to give hugs or get them. When I think of Craig Noel, and I will often as will many others, I will always remember his wonderful smile. I never saw him without a smile on his face.

Recently a public memorial service was held at the Spreckles Organ Pavilion in celebration of Craig’s life. Some said that there were 800 or so in attendance who wanted to be a part of San Diego history and honor the icon of theatre in San Diego.

Louis G. Spisto, Executive Producer opened the ceremonies. Spisto, who has been at the Globe for the past eight years, said a few words about Craig mentioning that it was he who established one of the first resident theatre companies outside Broadway.  He directed over 200 works and produced over 270 shows himself. “He made theatre the center of San Diego’s cultural life.” That included his 1983 introduction to Teatro Meta a Latin theatre project that became a bi lingual writing program serving thousands of San Diego Youths. 

He mentioned how important his city, the theatre, and his artists were to him. Both Mayor Jerry Sanders followed by City Councilmember Todd Gloria spoke on behalf of the city of San Diego talking about the Gardens in Balboa Park recently named for Craig. Several references were made to his being the Master Gardener. He loved gardening. 

Jeff Smith, long time member of The San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and Reader Theatre Reviewer spoke about his time as well with Craig just before the awards ceremony. Jeff was the informal keeper of the ‘Craig’, meeting his needs as they came up during the sometimes-long award process.

Others paying tribute to Craig were Darlene Shiley, former member of the Globe Board and one time wanna be actress who auditioned for Craig. She told some pretty funny stories along with personal memories of Craig. She and her husband Don are major contributors to the Old Globe in particular and to the Arts in particular. They established a Distinguished Professorship at USD in Noel’s honor.

Former USD Provost Sally Furay, R.S.C.J. talked about a Chair in his name to promote budding young playwrights. He was instrumental in developing Junior Theatre and the Old Globe/USD MFA Program along with multicultural programming. In 2007, President George W. Bush gave the National Medal of the Arts to Noel for his decades of leadership as a pillar of the American Theatre. The medal is the government’s highest medal for artists and art patrons. Shiley was one of those fortunate to have been with Craig in Washington when he received his Medal.

But the evening was really about those who knew and worked and were personal friends of Craig’s and those included no less that eleven associate artists (who were there) who spoke of Craig with fondness, adoration, Shakespearean quotes, song and humor. Long time associate of Craig’s and several times Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien introduced them all. Kandis Chappell a long time favorite of mine and of the Globe’s was so moved she could barely speak. Deborah May dedicated the song “Look To The Rainbow” from Finians Rainbow” by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy. She and Harry Groener (another associate who played Billy Bishop Goes to War to perfection in the old Cassius Carter Theatre moons ago) sang “My Buddy” to nary a dry eye.

May and her husband George DelHoyo met on the set of an Old Globe production many moons ago when they were both cast in Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 1982. She played Rosalind to his Orlando on the outdoor Festival stage.

Craig Noel was to Shakespeare as Rodgers and Hammerstein were to Broadway Musicals. It was Craig who in 1947 launched “the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival, and ten years later he guided the Globe from community to professional status, establishing the first full Actors’ Equity company in California”

It was no accident then that more than one of the associates including another long time San Diego icon, Jonathan McMurtry also paid tribute to Craig, quoted from the Bard, Diane Sinor who has been with the Globe for 47 years spoke fondly of how Craig was not just a colleague but a loving family friend who helped house her family in times of stress and need. Sinor who acted as a younger woman remained at the Globe until her retirement in 2007.

She too was a good friend of my friend Fran Bardacke. She edited publications and later became the theatre’s Education Director. She also supervised Camp Orbit its summer camp, Teatro Mata all the while giving seminars and lectures to adults. My late husband was one of her pupils who attended one such lecture on the occasion of a class he was taking at San Diego State.

Those there, and so many others from local theatres, David Ellenstein from North Coast Repertory Theatre, William Virchis director of performing arts, former professor of the Theatre at Southwestern was sitting next to me and the list goes on. David Ogden Stiers, Robin Pearson Rose, Robert Foxworth, Jim Winker, Andrew Traister, Mitch Edmonds and designer Ralph Funicello were on hand. Some I knew (Jimmy Saba another of our local actors who directed with Craig came in from New York) others were pointed out to me, the crowd was so dense.  Others I remembered from their works over the years. They came.

The friendships run deep and there were many more stories to tell. Bill Roesch, Deborah Taylor, Katherine McGrath and of course the Dowager Princess (Jack O’Brien’s words not mine) Marion Ross.  Jack O’Brien, his sidekick and Artistic Director Emeritus and Tom Hall the third wheel of the Troika in the heyday of the Globe’s growth also spoke of their times with Craig. Curmudgeon, uncle visionary, kind, leadership and Zen Master were words mentioned in almost every accolade to Craig. Some, who knew him very well, said that the whole thing would have embarrassed him. O’Brien’s remarks were followed by a beautiful slide show of Craig’s life and career.

The most poignant moment however came when Deborah Szekely, Honorary Director of The Old Globe quoted a passage from William Sorayan’s “The Time of your Life”.

In the time of your life, live – so that in good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed. 

“In the time of your life, live – so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”

And as was quoted from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” more than once.

“Now cracks the noble heart. Good night sweet prince.

All flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”


Theatre critic Davis is based in San Diego

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