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Jerry Russell, Stage West founder and major figure in North Texas theater, dies

Posted 10:44am on Friday, Sep. 06, 2013

Jerry Russell, the founder of Fort Worth theater company Stage West – and father of state Sen. Wendy Davis – died Thursday of complications from abdominal surgery. He was 77.

A gifted actor and director, Russell has been one of the most pivotal figures in the Fort Worth theater community for the last 35 years. Ever-vibrant, onstage and off, Russell was in the third week of directing Thank You, Jeeves at Stage West when he was hospitalized two weeks ago. He had also been scheduled to star in a Dallas production of The Sunshine Boys in late September.

Reports of Russell’s condition began appearing on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, and then a page on the website Caring Bridge was set up to keep his fans and friends updated. There was an outpouring of support.

On Wednesday, a status update read: “things are not progressing as well as we’d hoped.”

By early Thursday, Davis, who has postponed her plans to announce whether she’ll be running for Texas governor in 2014, posted on her Facebook page that Russell died peacefully in the early hours of the morning.

“He was surrounded by his children and his wife, our stepmom, Suzi [McLaughlin]. During his time in the hospital, there was never a moment that one of us wasn’t by his side. We, and the community, will forever be grateful for the significant impact he made on our lives. He and his warm, sparkling brown eyes will be deeply missed. My family and I thank you for surrounding us with your prayers and comfort during this time.”

Russell’s most recent appearance onstage was in the one-man show Clarence Darrow, which opened the Studio Theatre at Stage West in April. It was the third time he had played the role, one of his favorites, and it caused him to reflect on his long and storied career in the theater.

“I’m certainly closer to the end of my creative life,” he said in an interview with the Star-Telegram, “so to tackle a role from the viewpoint of a man who’s speaking to us at the end of his productive legal life, those things kind of coincide in an interesting way.”

‘He wasn’t afraid of anything’

Gerald Oliver Russell was born in 1936 in West Warwick, R.I., the only child of a French-Canadian immigrant father and a mother who was of British descent. He became involved with community theaters as a teenager, and pursued that passion throughout his life. He had a daughter with his first wife, Kathy Russell; and then four more children – of whom Wendy Davis is the third – with his second wife, Virginia Cornstubble. He continued performing, with some of his children joining him on stage. His two sons, Chris and Joe Russell, along with Wendy Davis, played various roles with their father in The Music Man and Oliver! Davis also played a minor role in The Miracle Worker with her father.

“He taught me to be fearless,” Davis said Thursday. “He wasn’t afraid of anything.”

He encouraged her to pursue her dreams of becoming a lawyer, she said. And she would go on to earn law degrees from TCU and Harvard, eventually becoming a Fort Worth City Council member, and then a state senator.

She made national headlines in June for her historic 11-hour filibuster on the Texas State Senate floor to help block an abortion bill.

“He taught me to be willing to risk everything for your passion,” Davis said, adding it was Russell who encouraged her to wear those now-iconic pink sneakers she wore on the chamber floor.

“He encouraged me in my decision [about] running for governor,” she said. Although she will not make any official announcement about her political future for awhile, she said “he will be proud of me no matter what.”

In 1973, Russell’s job at National Cash Register relocated him and his family to Fort Worth from New York. He continued to follow his passion for theater here, performing at William Garber’s Fort Worth Community Theatre (later Fort Worth Theatre) and Irving Community Theater, among others.

In 1978, he started Stage West in a sandwich shop called the Stage Door Deli near downtown Fort Worth. His first production was Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. The theater was one of four prominent theater companies that sprouted in the late ’70s and early ’80s, all from people who had worked at Garber’s theater and/or Casa Manana. The first was Johnny and Diane Simons’ Hip Pocket Theatre in 1977, followed by Stage West. Shortly after that came Rudy and Marian Eastman’s Jubilee Theatre, and Rose Pearson and Bill Newberry’s Circle Theatre. All four theaters are still going strong. (Eastman died in 2004.)

“Jerry had this incredible sense of humor and the sparkle in his eyes as he would find something funny, it was infectious,” said Pearson, who first met Russell when they were in a production of A Thousand Clowns at Irving Community Theatre.

Building an audience

He was a great advocate in the community for arts support. In the mid-1980s, along with Eastman, Garber and Pearson, he formed the Live Theatre League of Tarrant County and lobbied for funding for the arts.

Russell’s company quickly grew – co-producer Jim Covault joined the staff in its second year – and moved into a space on West Vickery Boulevard, just south of downtown. When an expansion of Interstate 30 was being planned, Russell was advised to move out of that space because of the years of construction in the area ahead. Stage West moved into an in-the-round space near TCU in the early 1990s, but financial difficulties – partially caused by its merger with Shakespeare in the Park – forced the group to move out in 2003. Russell had retired but came back on board to help steer Stage West back on its feet.

The group then used several itinerant spaces, including the Scott and Sanders theaters in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, before moving into a new home, which just happened to be their former space on Vickery. The space was renovated for the new era, and now includes a restaurant called the Old Vic Cafe, which serves meals before performances.

Russell officially retired – again – in 2012, leaving Covault and Dana Schultes as co-producers at Stage West; but anyone familiar with Russell, a consummate theater artist, knew he could never completely retire from directing, performing or mentoring.

Throughout his career, Russell was able to play many of his dream roles, including George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and the Grave Digger in Hamlet. He consistently won critics’ and audiences’ hearts in performances not just at Stage West, but at Dallas Theater Center, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Casa Mañana and others. He was set to star in a production of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas in late September, but pulled out after he became ill. That show has been recast.

The theater community is mourning his loss.

“Jerry was a legendary figure in our North Texas theater community,” said Kevin Moriarity, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, in a statement. “Stage West, the theater he created, will continue to stand as an enduring monument to his artistic contributions. Jerry was a beloved figure in the theater community for his unerring truthfulness on stage, his deeply collaborative creative process, his glorious sense of humor, his colorful storytelling and his deep, abiding love of theater.”

Noting that Russell had appeared in six DTC productions, including The Tempest in 2011, Moriarty added: “It’s hard to imagine theater in North Texas without Jerry Russell.”

The 35th season for Stage West was announced just recently, so there’s no word yet on how Russell’s death will affect immediate plans for the theater. But, as Russell would have wanted it, Stage West’s current show, Thank You, Jeeves, will go on.

Company manger Peggy Kruger-O'Brien confirmed that performances will continue through the weekend as scheduled. The show runs through Sept. 29.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced yet, but there will be a celebration of Russell’s life at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at the Scott Theatre in Fort Worth, on the stage where Russell performed before starting Stage West. Please bring your stories to share.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Jerry Russell Endowment Fund at Stage West, to honor his life and legacy. Donations can be made online at www.stagewest.org/donate, or by check sent to Stage West, c/o Jerry Russell Endowment Fund, 821 West Vickery Boulevard, Fort Worth, TX 76104.

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