Theater pioneer Segal dies

Career included producer, theater founder, charter commissioner

Benjamin H. Segal, 83, theatrical producer and founder of the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, Conn., died Dec. 27 in Wallingford after a brief illness.

Segal began his theatrical career as general manager of the Shubert Theater in New Haven in the mid-’40s. In 1948, Segal and Anthony Brady Farrell took over New York’s Mark Hellinger Theater, with Segal overseeing more than 70 stage productions for the Farrell Organization.

Segal produced the award-winning “Billy Budd” in 1951; with George Kaufman, he co-produced the revival of Kaufman’s “Fancy Meeting You Again,” starring Walter Matthau, in 1952.

In 1954, Segal returned to Connecticut to found the Oakdale Theater, exploring the then-new concept of seasonal theater in the round.

Growing concern

In partnership with Buster Bonoff, a second theater was opened in Warwick, R.I., in 1955, and Segal soon co-developed others in Buffalo, N.Y., and Framingham, Mass. He went on to co-found the Musical Arena Theater Assn. of America, which represented ownership or operating control of over 20 seasonal theaters throughout the country.

Oakdale began as a 1,600-seat tent theater, presenting summer stock Equity musicals. Within a few years, Segal elevated the stature of the theater by bringing in such Hollywood and Broadway stars as Van Johnson, James Garner, Angela Lansbury, Howard Keel, Debbie Reynolds, Ginger Rogers, Jane Powell and Ray Milland to star in the stage productions.

In 1972 Segal expanded the theater’s capacity to 3,200 and replaced the tent with a permanent wood dome, turning Oakdale into Connecticut’s preeminent concert venue.

Over the years the theater featured performances from artists including Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Tom Jones, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Don Rickles, Bob Newhart and Jerry Lewis. Among the hundreds of artists who made their first Connecticut appearances on Oakdale’s revolving stage were the Who, Cream, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Eddie Murphy and Reba McEntire.

In 1996, Segal saw the realization of his longtime dream for Oakdale when the theater opened its doors as a new 5,000-seat year-round proscenium facility. Oakdale was later purchased by SFX, now Clear Channel.

While operating Oakdale, Segal’s other activities included the creation of the Barnum Festival Theater in Bridgeport, Conn., and management of the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland and several other Connecticut venues. In 1976, Segal built the year-round Sunrise Theater in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Local hero

Segal was a founder and charter commissioner of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts and had been honored by various Connecticut governors for his service to the state.

Segal is survived by his wife, Barbara; daughter Rebecca Segal, senior VP of program acquisitions and co-production for the BBC, based in Los Angeles; and sons Beau, who ran Oakdale during the ’90s, and Mark, a chef. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Clarice Segal Fund, Alzheimer’s Resource Center, 1261 South Main St., Plantsville, CT 06479, or the Masonic Healthcare Center, P.O. Box 70, Wallingford, CT 06492.

A memorial service will be held Thursday at the Quinnipiac Club, 221 Church St., New Haven.

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