Spent 70 years with Old Globe

Old Globe Playhouse founding director Craig Noel, who helped send 20 of its shows to Broadway and received a National Medal of Arts from President Bush in 2007, died Saturday in Mission Hills, Calif., of natural causes. He was 94.

In his 70 years with the Old Globe in San Diego, Noel helmed more than 200 productions, produced 270 more and introduced such programs as the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival.

Born in New Mexico, Noel moved to San Diego as a child with his family. In 1937, he started his association with the Old Globe acting in John Van Druten’s “The Distaff Side.”

After a break during WWII when he served in the Pacific, Noel worked in post-war Japan as director of the Ernie Pyle Theater (operated by Special Services for American troops in Tokyo) before returning to civilian life as one of two junior directors for 20th Century Fox alongside Orson Welles.

He returned to the Old Globe as artistic director in 1949 and created one of nation’s most successful not-for-profit arts orgs overseeing its expansion into a three-theater complex. It was at this time that he introduced the Shakespeare fest.

Ten years later he took the Globe from community to pro 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 playwrights including Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, 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 Center Stage. In 1984, the Globe was the ninth theatrical institution selected to receive the Regional Theater Tony Award.

Noel played an instrumental role in the careers of many legiters — including three-time Tony Award-winner Jack O’Brien, whom he hired as a.d. in 1981.

“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 exec producer Lou Spisto. “He dedicated his life to his art and singlehandedly made theater the center of San Diego’s cultural life.”

Noel’s passion for arts education fueled many innovative programs, including the Globe Educational Tours in 1974, a Master of Fine Arts graduate acting program (in conjunction with U. of San Diego) in 1987, and Teatro Meta, an award-winning, bilingual playwriting program that served thousands of young people in the San Diego’s public schools, in 1983.

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