Volume 74, Number 51 | April 27 - May 03 , 2005

Gene Frankel, 85, pioneered Off-Broadway theater scene

By albert amateau

Gene Frankel, the theater director and acting teacher who pioneered the Off-Broadway scene, winning three Obie Awards for directing, including one in 1961 for Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” starring then unknowns James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, died last week at the age of 85.

A resident of Washington Sq. Village for many years, he broke a shoulder in a fall on April 11 and went to New York University Medical Center where he died of heart failure on April 20, according to Gail Thacker, manager of the Gene Frankel Theater.

The theater, which has been at 24 Bond St. for 15 years, will remain open for play production and rentals, but the acting school, where the motto was, “You don’t just get the Gene Frankel technique, you get Gene Frankel,” will close, Thacker said.

An early member of Actors Studio, Frankel became a director in 1949 when he reconfigured a union hall on Ninth Ave. and W. 41st St. for his production of a play based on the Scottsboro Boys case, “They Shall Not Die,” by John Wexley. The play starred then unknowns Lou Gossett, Jr., and Dennis Weaver. The following year, Frankel directed a play about Nat Turner, leader of a slave rebellion in the same theater. But the place closed when the building was razed to make room for the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

For the next six years, Frankel performed and directed in touring companies and summer stock. He returned to New York in 1956, leased the old Minsky Theater, a burlesque house on Second Ave., and created Rooftop Theatre. At the Rooftop, he directed a new version of “Volpone” with Howard DaSilva, Alfred Ryder and Jo Van Fleet, which won him the 1956 Obie. He began teaching acting and directing at the Rooftop, but three years later, the building was demolished in anticipation of the Second Ave. subway — which is still in the anticipation stage.

Frankel then moved to the Player’s Theater on MacDougal St., where he taught and directed from 1959-’69. His work during that period included the Obie-winning “The Blacks,” which had a long run in the St. Marks Theater. “Machinal,” won him another Obie, “Brecht on Brecht” and “Young, Gifted and Black” were among a string of Off-Broadway hits.

Frankel and a production partner, CY Kayback, in 1970 acquired two floors in the 150-year-old Broadway Central Hotel and created the Mercer Arts Center with seven small theaters. Long-running hits included “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Coca Cola Grande.”

But on Aug. 3, 1973, the Broadway Central collapsed at 5:10 p.m., killing five people on the top floors. Frankel led Mercer Arts Center staff out of the building just before the collapse when he noticed cracks streaking across the walls and ceilings.

Frankel then moved to an old church on W. 36th St. on the invitation of Samuel Rubin, owner of the property, and produced and taught there until 1974 when Rubin’s private foundation was charged with tax-shelter irregularities.

For 10 years between 1975 and 1985, he directed a series of Broadway plays, including a revival on Maxwell Anderson’s and Kurt Weil’s “Lost in the Stars,” “A Cry of Players,” with Anne Bancroft and Frank Langella, and “Indians” by Arthur Kopit starring Stacy Keach.

During that time, Frankel conducted his acting workshop in the Lamb’s Club on W. 44th St., but the club went into bankruptcy, the building was closed and Frankel moved the workshop again to W. 62nd St. However, three years later, the developer of that property exercised a demolition clause and Frankel moved again, to the Bond St. site where a mime troupe had vacated a 2,400-sq.-ft. space.

At another crisis in 2002, when his board of directors suggested downsizing, Frankel said, “My life is in the theater and I will die in the theater. I will not go smaller and safer. If anything, the next theater will be bigger and better.” In addition to his studio, Frankel taught at N.Y.U. and Columbia.

A memorial service, to be announced later will be held in August. A daughter, Laura Frankel, of Laurel, Md., survives.

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