Lucille Lortel

Lucille Lortel

Lucille Lortel, ca. 1920s by Achille Volpe
Born Lucille Wadler
(1900-12-16)December 16, 1900
New York, New York, U.S.
Died April 4, 1999(1999-04-04) (aged 98)
New York, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actress; theatrical producer/artistic director
Years active 1925–1999
Spouse(s) Louis Schweitzer (1931-1971; his death)

Lucille Lortel (December 16, 1900 – April 4, 1999) was an American actress, artistic director and producer. In the course of her career Lortel produced or co-produced nearly 500 plays, 5 of which were nominated for Tony Awards: As Is by William M. Hoffman, Angels Fall by Lanford Wilson, Blood Knot by Athol Fugard, Mbongeni Ngema's Sarafina! and A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing. She also produced Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's, and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, a production which ran for seven years and according to The New York Times "caused such a sensation that it...put Off Broadway on the map."[1]

Early life and acting career

Lortel was born Lucille Wadler on December 16, 1900 at 153 Attorney Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one of four siblings born to Anny and Harris Wadler, Jewish immigrants of Polish descent. Her father was a manufacturer of women's clothes and frequently traveled to Europe to buy designs that he would copy. She had two brothers, Mayo (a violinist) and Seymour, and a sister, Ruth. She was raised in both The Bronx and New York City. She was home schooled and after attended school at Adelphi University in Brooklyn, New York. She was remembered by her friends for being vivacious, outgoing, flirtatious and was known to be found dancing at parties well into her 80s.[2]

In 1920, Lortel (her stage surname) began to study acting and theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1921 she briefly left the United States to further continue her training with Max Reinhardt in Berlin. She made her Broadway debut in 1925 in the Theatre Guild's production of Caesar and Cleopatra with Helen Hayes. In 1926 she appeared in Michael Kallesser's One Man's Woman at the 48th Street Theatre in New York. She also appeared in David Belasco's The Dove with Judith Anderson, and as Poppy in the touring company of The Shanghai Gesture with Florence Reed. In 1929 Lortel played the female lead in The Man Who Laughed Last with star Sessue Hayakawa. She performed the role both on stage and on film in what was one of the first talking pictures.[3]

In 1931 Lortel married paper industrialist and philanthropist Louis Schweitzer. In deference to her husband's concerns she retired from acting in 1939.[1][4]

White Barn Theatre

In 1947, "after spending over 15 years looking for a way to express herself in the Theatre that was acceptable to her husband"[5] (and at the urging of actor Danny Kaye), Lortel founded the White Barn Theatre in an old horse barn on her and her husband's estate in Westport and Norwalk, Connecticut.[6] According to Lortel's wishes the Theatre's mission was aimed at presenting works of an unusual and experimental nature, existing as a sanctuary from commercial pressures, a place where writers could take a chance with their plays and where actors could stretch their talents.[1]

Under Lortel's guidance The White Barn premiered plays (many of which enjoyed successful transfers to commercial theatres) such as: George C. Wolfe and Lawrence Bearson's Ivory Tower with Eva Marie Saint (1947); Seán O'Casey's Red Roses for Me (1948); Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs (1957); Archibald MacLeish's This Music Crept by Me Upon the Waters (1959); Edward Albee's Fam and Yam (1960); Samuel Beckett's Embers (1960); Murray Schisgal's The Typists (1961); Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers (1965); Norman Rosten's Come Slowly Eden (1966); Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1966); Terrence McNally's Next (1967); Barbara Wersba's The Dream Watcher starring Eva Le Gallienne (1975); June Havoc's Nuts for the Underman (1977); David Allen's Cheapside starring Cherry Jones (which Lortel later co-produced at the Half Moon Theatre in London); and Margaret Sanger's Unfinished Business, starring Eileen Heckart (1989). Ireland's famed Dublin Players performed for several seasons at the White Barn with Milo O'Shea.[5]

Among the successful transfers to Off-Broadway from the White Barn Theatre are: Fatima Dike's Glasshouse, Casey Kurtti's Catholic School Girls, Diane Kagan's Marvelous Grey and Hugh Whitemore's The Best of Friends. Transfers from the White Barn to Broadway include Cy Coleman and A.E. Hotchner's Welcome to the Club (which premiered at the White Barn under the title Let 'Em Rot) and Lanford Wilson's Redwood Curtain, which was subsequently presented on television as a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. On September 26, 1992, a small storage area near the theatre was expanded and renovated to become the White Barn Theatre Museum. The final production took place at the White Barn in 2002.[5] In 2006, after a failed attempt to save it, the land on which the theatre stood was sold to a real estate developer for $48 million.[6] The institution's legacy has been preserved by a Lucille Lortel Foundation grant to the Westport Country Playhouse, which, as of 2005 houses the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center.[7]

Lucille Lortel Theatre

In 1955, eight years after Lortel started producing at the White Barn, Mr. Schweitzer presented his wife with the Theatre De Lys at 121 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village as a 24th wedding anniversary present.[1] For her first production in her new theatre Lortel reopened her White Barn production of the Marc Blitzstein translation of The Threepenny Opera at the theatre. It ran for seven years. This production was a seminal moment in the history of Off-Broadway, winning the only Tony Awards ever awarded to an Off-Broadway production: a Special Tony Award for Best Off-Broadway show, as well as the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical to Lotte Lenya; Scott Merrill was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

As Threepenny Opera continued and eventually concluded its historic run, Lortel produced many other plays, including Jean Genet's The Balcony in 1960, which won the Village Voice's Obie Award for best foreign play, Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot (a production starring James Earl Jones which launched [8]), Christopher Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners, Seán O'Casey's plays I Knock at the Door, Pictures in the Hallway, and Cock-A-Doodle-Dandy, Charles Morgan's The River Line with Sada Thompson, Beatrice Straight and Peter Cookson, and Tom Cole's Medal of Honor Rag.

At the Theater de Lys, Lortel provided a home for such plays as David Mamet's A Life in the Theater, Sam Shepard's Buried Child and Marsha Norman's award winning Getting Out.[1]

On November 16, 1981, during the run of Tommy Tune's production of Caryl Churchill's' Cloud Nine (for which Tune won the Drama Desk Award for best director), the Theatre de Lys was renamed the Lucille Lortel Theatre. During the 1983–84 season at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, she co-produced Michael Cristofer's The Lady and the Clarinet starring Stockard Channing, followed by Woza Albert!, which received an Obie Award. In 1985 she produced Win Wells' Gertrude Stein and a Companion starring Jan Miner and Marian Seldes in the roles they had originated at the White Barn Theatre.[5]

Gertrude Stein and a Companion was recorded and broadcast on both the Bravo US cable and Bravo Canadian television networks. It received the National Education Film and Video Award for historical biographies and an Emmy Award. Other plays presented at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the 1980s included Not About Heroes, Elisabeth Welch in Time To Start Living, The Acting Company's Orchards and Ten by Tennessee (which were presented by arrangement with Lucille Lortel) and the hit Groucho: A Life in Revue, which went on to play in London's West End. The decade ended with the hit production of Steel Magnolias which ran 1,126 performances.[5]

In 1992, Lortel produced Larry Kramer's The Destiny of Me which received the 1993 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play Off-Broadway from the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers. Also that season the Lucille Lortel Theatre was home to the Circle Repertory Company's production of The Fiery Furnace starring Julie Harris, in her Off-Broadway debut. The Theatre housed her production of Jane Anderson's The Baby Dance, as well as Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and two plays starring Uta Hagen: Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein (also produced by Lortel) and Donald Margulies' Collected Stories.[5]

On October 26, 1998, Lortel unveiled the Playwrights' Sidewalk at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in order to create a permanent tribute to playwrights whose work has been performed Off-Broadway. As part of the Lucille Lortel Awards ceremony each year, one playwright will be inducted into the sidewalk, having their name engraved into one of the solid bronze stars imbedded in concrete in front of the Theatre. She wanted the Theatre named for her to continue after her death. To that end, in 1999, she granted the Lucille Lortel Theatre to the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation, establishing a new booking policy of Not-For-Profit productions only. Since then, the theatre has hosted numerous productions, benefit performances, readings and meetings.[5]

ANTA Matinee Series

During the mid-1950s, the board of directors for the American National Theater and Academy (this organization eventually evolved into the National Endowment for the Arts) was interested in creating a repertory theater of national standing. Lortel, then a member of the ANTA board, and feeling somewhat frustrated by the success of the Threepenny Opera (because she wanted to bring more plays into her theater) persuaded ANTA to instead support a matinee series as a "laboratory for innovation" based on the model of the work she was doing at the White Barn Theatre.[1]

With the board's approval, Lortel opened the ANTA Matinee Series in the spring of 1956 at the Theatre de Lys. She served as the artistic director of the series and committed the series to presenting a program that was free of commercial influence. Plays were picked for the Matinee Series without regard for popular appeal and no monetary benefit was claimed in the event that commercial interest developed over a production. The series was presented every Tuesday afternoon and ran for twenty years. Two productions began in the Matinee series went on to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy: Tennessee Williams' I Rise In Flame Cried The Phoenix and Meade Roberts' Maidens and Mistresses at Home in the Zoo, the latter of which also played Off-Broadway.[5]

Other significant presentations of the ANTA Matinee Theatre Series included Helen Hayes in Lovers, Villains and Fools; Eva Le Gallienne in Two Stories by Oscar Wilde: The Birthday of the Infanta and The Happy Prince; Siobhan McKenna in an experimental version of Hamlet; Peggy Wood in G.B. Shaw's Candida; a dramatic recital by Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson (married in real life); Walter Abel, Richard Burton and Cathleen Nesbitt in An Afternoon of Poetry; and Orson Bean in A Round with Ring.[5]

Other projects

Library of Congress




Awards and honors




The headstone at Lucille Lortel's grave in Westchester Hills Cemetery


On Easter Sunday, April 4, 1999, Lortel died at age 98, after a short hospitalization at New York hospital, and is interred in Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hasting on Hudson, New York.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Nemy, Enid (April 6, 1999). "Lucille Lortel, Patron Who Made Innovative Off Broadway a Star, Is Dead at 98". The New York Times.
  2. Greene, Alexis (2004). Lucille Lortel: the queen of Off Broadway (1st Limelight ed.). ISBN 0-87910-302-7.
  3. Lucille Lortel at the Internet Broadway Database
  4. Lucille Lortel Papers, 1902–2000 held by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; accessed May 24, 2014.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Lortel profile,; accessed May 24, 2014
  6. 1 2 Connic, Jennifer (May 30, 2006). "White Barn property sold for $48 million". Retrieved May 24, 2014.
  7. "Playhouse Gets $2 Million to Maintain White Barn Legacy". December 6, 2005. Retrieved May 24, 2014.
  8. Athol Fugard's American career
  9. Margo Jones Award recipients,; accessed May 24, 2014.
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