First brought Thurber, Pinter to Broadway

Haila Stoddard, a star on New York stages for three decades and who first produced works by James Thurber and Harold Pinter on Broadway, died Feb. 21 in Weston, Conn., of cardiopulmonary arrest. She was 97.

Stoddard’s first producing effort was a 1960 adaptation of Thurber material, “A Thurber Carnival.” She produced the musical with Colorado heiress Helen Bonfils and Michael Davis.

The original cast included Tom Ewell, Alice Ghostley and Peggy Cass, and the revue was directed by Burgess Meredith. Thurber and Meredith picked up Tonys.

Stoddard and Bonfils, as Bonard Prods., later brought to Broadway productions of Noel Coward’s “Sail Away” (1962), C.P. Snow’s “The Affair” (1962), Thurber’s “The Beast in Me” (1963) and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “The Hollow Crown” (1963). With Kathleen and Justin Sturm, Stoddard also presented “That Hat!,” her adaptation of “An Italian Straw Hat,” in 1964.

In 1962 Stoddard hired choreographer John Butler, with little-known Tiffany’s window dresser Andy Warhol for costumes, to work on Thurber’s “The Beast in Me.”

With Mark Wright and Leonard S. Field she premiered Harold Pinter on Broadway in 1967 with “The Birthday Party.” She later offered Off Broadway productions of Coward’s “Private Lives” (1968), co-producing with Wright and Duane Wilder; Lanford Wilson’s “Lemon Sky” (1970) and “The Gingham Dog” (1969); and “The Last Sweet Days of Issac,” a musical by Nancy Cryer and Gretchen Ford (1970) that won three Obie awards. With Neal Du Brock she produced “The Survival of St. Joan (1971) and with Arnold H. Levy “Lady Audley’s Secret” (1972) and “Love,” based on the play by Murray Schisgal, starring Nathan Lane.

Pursuing her interest in young playwrights, she produced Fatima Dike’s “Glass House” (1981), Casey Kurtti’s “Catholic School Girls,” “Sweet Prince” (1982), “Marvelous Gray” (1982) and John Olive’s “Clara’s Play” (1983).

Bonard also presented the RSC productions of “King Lear” and “Comedy of Errors” at the New York State Theater, and her London productions of “A Thurber Carnival” (1962) and “Sail Away” (1963) played the Savoy in the West End.

Her dramatic adaptations of Thurber material included “Life on a Limb,” and “Men, Women, and Less Alarming Creatures,” produced with “The Last Flower” on Boston WGBH public television in 1965. In “A Round With Ring” she adapted Ring Lardner works, which she directed in New York for the ANTA matinee series. She also directed the national touring production of “Lunatics and Lovers,” and wrote original scripts entitled “Abandoned Child” and “Bird on the Wing” and co-wrote “Dahling – A Tallulah Bankhead Musical” with composer-lyricist Jack Lawrence.

Her first professional stage appearance was a walk-on in San Francisco in a 1934 production of “Merrily We Roll Along.” She took over a leading role on opening night in Los Angeles.

Stoddard arrived on Broadway in 1937, succeeding Peggy Conklin in the title role of “Yes, My Darling Daughter.”

She was Rosalind Russell’s stand-by in Broadway’s “Auntie Mame,” but didn’t get a chance to play the lead until Russell’s successor, Greer Garson, was indisposed after her first perf.

Stoddard replaced Elaine Stritch as the matinee Martha for the original 1962 Broadway production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” When Uta Hagen left the Broadway production to open the show in London, Stoddard performed the role of Martha eight times a week for a time.

She subsequently starred in “A Woman’s a Fool – To Be Clever,” “I Know What I Like” and “Kindred” (1939), “Susannah and the Elders” (1940), “The Rivals” (1942), “The Moon Vine” and “Blithe Spirit” (1943), and “Dream Girl” (1945).

During WWII she toured the South Pacific in a 1945 USO production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

On TV Stoddard appeared as the wicked Aunt Pauline on CBS’ “The Secret Storm” from 1953-71. In the early days of live TV dramas during the 1950s, Stoddard appeared in principal roles in more than 100 teleplays on CBS and NBC.

Following the death of Helen Bonfils in 1972, she, with then-husband Whitfield Connor and son Christopher Kirkland, incorporated the Elitch Theatre Company, which produced 25 summer seasons in Denver until 1987. She simultaneously associated with Lucille Lortel to produce summer seasons at the White Barn Theater in Westport, Conn., was on the board of directors of New Dramatists in New York City and was a founding member of the Westport Theater Artists Workshop.

In addition to son Christopher, she is survived by a daughter and a stepdaughter; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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