Friday, November 9, 2007

Local theater legend Robert Weiss, 71, dies


Robert Grande Weiss, one of the giants of the Santa Barbara theater community, has died.
Grande Weiss, who was a co-founding member and spent 25 years as the Artistic Director of the Ensemble Theatre Company before retiring in 2006, passed away Tuesday evening at Sarah House after losing his battle with a recurrence of cancer. He was 71.

Grande Weiss, who was honored with both Local Hero and Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Santa Barbara Independent, was credited with lifting Ensemble – a small community theater when he joined back in 1983 – into a professional Equity playhouse, one that is respected throughout the Central Coast and indeed Southern California.
He directed more than 80 productions at Ensemble during his tenure at the theater.
“Robert's success was immense,” said Jonathan Fox, Ensemble's Executive Artistic Director, whom Grande Weiss helped to appoint as his successor, in a statement released Thursday. “It is an extraordinary accomplishment to grow a theatre company through a quarter century, especially through lean and tough times, while consistently presenting…challenging and thought-provoking work. The awards and accolades the company has received over the years, and the long-time support of a great many members of the community, are a testament to his major achievement.”
Although Grande Weiss retired from his management position followed the 2005-06 season, he remained active at Ensemble during the following transitional season. He directed two productions in 2006-07, including “Betrayal,” a re-mounting of one of the most popular plays by one of his favorite playwright’s, Harold Pinter. The other, Richard Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour,” was the South Coast premiere of the 2004 work, which opened last April, about the same he learned that the cancer he had beaten four years earlier had returned.
“It’s truly a great loss to the theater community,” said Jim Breen, Ensemble’s marketing director, who has worked closely with Grande Weiss for more than a dozen years and first met the Grande Weiss when the director was acting in an earlier Pinter play at the theater. “He was a real visionary. He wanted to make it as professional as possible, and that extended to everything endeavor. Even on the brochures, his standards were extremely high. He worked hard to make everything reflecting Ensemble as good as it could be. He was a good friend, and a mentor to me.”
Grande Weiss was born on Staten Island, NY, on February 18, 1936, and started his professional career as an actor, securing a role as a teenager in the first national touring company of the Broadway play “Tea and Sympathy” in 1955. After moving to Santa Barbara in 1973, he worked with Theatre Paradox and the groups Cranks and Calyx, before joining Ensemble in 1983, He was named Artistic Director in 1985.
Grande Weiss created several new programs for Ensemble, including Storybook Theatre, which produces original work geared toward, and often starring, children.
“He’s been a pillar here for a very long time,” said Miller James, the current director of Storybook, who has spent 10 years at the helm of the children’s theater outlet. “He would always read my scripts and have some wise advice for me. Robert always left me alone to do the work, but he was always there as a sounding board when I needed it. It’s a big loss for the community.”
James said that Grande Weiss’ legacy was putting “a local theater on the bigger map.”
“People know about it and want to work here, and I think that all comes from him,” he said.
Even those who never worked with Grande Weiss felt the impact of his death this week.
“We had a brush-up rehearsal on Wednesday,” noted Maurice Lord, who is directing the current production of “The God of Hell” at Center Stage Theatre. “Someone mentioned that Robert had died just before we started, and the air just went out of the room.”
A statement from the family said that a memorial event will be scheduled soon, with details to be made public in the coming days

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