Craig Noel died in his home on April third. He was 94. Friends remember the Father of San Diego Theater.
Jack O’Brien, artistic director emeritus, Old Globe Theatre. In the mid- to late ’60s, I was the lowly assistant to Ellis Rabb. Ellis visited Craig, and I carried the luggage.
I had never met anyone like Craig: mild, charming, light, and deft. He was, without being either cruel or in any way careless, perhaps one of the single wittiest hosts I had ever known. I recall sitting in the Old Globe edifice on the first day of summer rehearsals and for years afterwards, when Craig would slyly mount the stage, wearing inevitably one of his Greek fishing hats, and without any effort at viciousness, hilariously skewer every single person he introduced. By the conclusion of an opening-day welcome, we were all helpless with laughter and, as befits a joyous group, truly one family.
That was perhaps his greatest gift. No orphan in the storm, no major star, no one could resist him or his blithe and endless charm. If there is such a thing as a “charmed life,” he lived it, fully, and with immense generosity to all who came in his circle of acquaintance.
Don Sparks, actor. Craig saved my life. I gravitated to the Globe after just barely graduating from San Diego High School, where I excelled in pot and acne. For some reason he thought I had something, thought I was funny. When I was 20, he summoned me into his office and said, “I’m going to give you your equity card, but I want you to promise me something: that you will read, read, read! I don’t want you to become a vacuum!”
How lucky a bonehead like me hooked up with a mentor like Craig. Twenty-four years later, I became an associate artist at the Globe. For a kid from a bad place in Golden Hill with no money, grade point average, or prospects, he gave me a special gift.
Oh, and Craig? I’m going to start reading. I promise.
Katherine McGrath, actor. Next to his beloved theater, I think Craig loved the sea most of all. When he put in his pool, he told me it was a choice between that and a Chinese junk sailboat. Sometimes I think he wished he bought the boat.
We used to take those harbor cruises around the bay and always had lunch at a restaurant on the water. One of our favorite drives was through Rosecrans Cemetery and to the tip of Point Loma, where he could look back across the harbor and out to the sea.
I first met Craig at a very sad time. It was summer of 1978, just after a fire destroyed the original theater. We became close almost immediately. We worked very hard and laughed a great deal. He was my best friend.
Annie Thompson, Noel’s assistant/secretary. People spent many years at the Globe, whether office staff, stage management, or actors. And although he loved having the familiar around, Craig was first to say, maybe reluctantly, “Go. Do the next thing in your life. Take what you’ve learned here and share it.”
I’ll bet everyone who knew him has a favorite “pure Craig” moment. Mine’s when people wanted to erect a life-sized statue of him on the Globe “green.” He was indignant. “I don’t need a statue!” he shouted. “I need a parking space!”
Diane Sinor, actor, Old Globe education director. It was springtime 1960 — my gosh, 50 years ago! — when I met Craig. I held him in awe.
A few years later, when I was in The Crucible under his direction, still more afraid of him than not, he sat on my lap and grandly announced, “You know, I’ve given up smoking. So now I’m going to smoke yours.” And with great panache he plucked a cigarette from a package in my lapel pocket (yes, I smoked then too), and the ice was broken. We became great friends, though I was, and still am, a touch in awe of him. He was so humble, so sharp witted, so cantankerous, so funny, such a fussbudget, so wise, so prophetic.
Craig tried to quit smoking hundreds of times. In recent years, when accompanying him to the theater, I, and others, always went with him to a secluded spot where he could have his intermission smoke. We didn’t condone, mind you. We just faced facts. And when folks would pass by looking askance, I wanted to say, “Hey! He’s over 90 and he’s still here. So lay off!”
THE NATIONAL INFLUENCE
Richard Easton, actor. In the days when the American theater profession was quite small, Craig — although based in San Diego — was very much a figure. So many of those who came together in the mid-’50s worked with him over the years that followed.
When Ellis Rabb and his then-wife, Rosemary Harris, and I formed the rather grandiosely named Association of Producing Artists — APA to our friends — in 1960, we may have been inspired by Tyrone Guthrie writing that American actors were always complaining about how the theater was run but never did anything about it. But Craig was doing something about it.
Over the next 40 years, we all had a lot to do with Craig and the Globe: Ellis, Conrad [Susa], and of course Jack [O’Brien]. Lots of very good work and lots of very good times. All with help from Craig.
CUSTODIAN OF THE WORD
Jim Winker, actor, teacher. I first met Craig, and he directed me, in 1980. I thought him watchful (he could size you up quickly) and somewhat contained. But if you wanted a straight answer or an honest opinion, he was the man. As a director, he was always specific. The day I’ll remember most was the day he was on fire.
I had directed an MFA production of Two Gents in the Carter. After seeing it, Craig invited me to lunch. He wanted to talk about Shakespearean text and staging. We reminisced about past Globe productions we both had liked. Then we started talking about the recent American trend of basing Shakespeare more on visuals than on the text, and Craig leaned in and let loose. He was passionate about the supremacy of the word, about true ensemble work, of striving to understand through the text what Shakespeare meant to convey. Visuals in expense of the text went against all he loved about Shakespeare.
Craig had always been a man of strong opinions but was on fire at the Mission Hills Cafe — intense, vehement, glowing, and inspirational. He was in his 80s then but had the passion of a 20-year-old. I will never forget it.
Sister Sally Furay, provost emerita, University of San Diego. The Master of Fine Arts in Acting program, a joint venture of the Old Globe and USD, was born in Craig Noel’s head. He was convinced that America’s drama programs weren’t teaching skills for classical theater effectively. In the early 1980s, when I was Provost of USD, I met with Craig, Jack O’Brien, and Tom Hall. We discussed a joint acting program that could combine the Globe’s expertise in theater and USD’s in the literature underlying effective productions. Five years later, with the great Helen Hayes as a special guest, the program was announced.
Craig was a highly gifted but humble man, more interested in preserving the Globe for the long term than in his own prominence. Seeing how other great regional theaters suffered when the leader stepped down, Craig — though only in his 60s — persuaded a rising star of the American theater, Jack O’Brien, to become artistic director. Someone with a large ego might have named a lesser successor. But all that mattered to Craig was that the Old Globe prospered.
Ken Ruta, actor, director. A majority of the theater folk called him “Uncle Craig.” We did that because we could tell him things we’d never tell our fathers. He coddled, encouraged, and dared. He forgave mistakes as long as you were trying.
My favorite “Uncle Craig” moment: after a none-too-successful performance outdoors, he told the leads (myself included), “All right, your director’s gone now. You know your roles. Do them the way you wanted in the first place!”
It’s said there are two kinds of people in this biz: those who love the theater and those who love themselves in the theater. Uncle Craig was of the first group. He believed with a passion that audiences not only paid to be entertained but, on some higher level, to be educated and healed, becoming involved in worlds that never were but might or should have been.
Deborah Szekely, lifelong friend. You don’t sum up Craig Noel. He used to joke that he never worked a day in his life, but he has done so much and meant so much for so many. He was like a chameleon: whatever you needed, he was there for you.
When Craig was near the end, I would visit him. Often he’d recite parts of plays. One, from William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, kept running through his mind. He’d say a few lines, then stop, wondering if he’d got them right. The passage obviously meant a great deal to him. One day he asked me to check the script. I did. Craig was delighted to know he’d memorized it word for word.
“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.”