FORT WORTH In his 35 years at Casa Mañana, when it was a theater in the round under the landmark silver dome, silver-haired Joe Stecko reigned in the orchestra pit.
As music director, he worked with notable performers including Betty Buckley, Hal Linden, Sandy Duncan and Ruta Lee, who gave Mr. Stecko the nickname “The Silver Eagle.”
“I dubbed Joe ‘The Silver Eagle’ because of his eagle eye,” Lee once told the Star-Telegram. “Wherever I was in the round, he would keep track of me and be ready to fill the scene with music at exactly the right moment.”
Mr. Stecko died Thursday in the hospice at Baylor All Saints Medical Center at Fort Worth. He was 91.
His wife, Lexa Northington, said Mr. Stecko had had two strokes since 2007. He broke his neck after a fall in 2010 and broke his arm in a treadmill accident in 2011.
“We called him the Energizer [Bunny],” she said, “because he just kept going and going.”
He was hospitalized with pneumonia 2 1/2 weeks ago and was moved to the hospice last week, she said.
Mr. Stecko was named Casa music director emeritus upon his retirement in 2002.
His death created a wave of remembrance on social media and from the people who worked with and learned from him over the years at Casa.
Buckley, the Tony winner who got her start at Casa and performed in several shows conducted by Stecko, wrote that she “loved him with all my heart. He taught me so much and was such a great heart and a loving man.”
“He was always bright-eyed and had a smile that lit up the room and promised mischief and good times all the time,” Buckley said.
Joseph Stecko was born March 19, 1923, in Pittsburgh to a Ukrainian father and a Czech mother, both immigrants who came to this country through Ellis Island.
He showed an early affinity for music and earned two bachelor’s degrees from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now the Carnegie Mellon School of Music) in music education (1949) and music (1950) and a Master of Fine Arts in music in 1951.
He began working in New York and eventually was guest conductor for the CBS Symphony. Once at Carnegie Hall, he conducted the Metropolitan Opera’s brass section in a performance of Berlioz’s Requiem.
But he loved musical theater most of all. Mr. Stecko conducted a 1958 off-Broadway revival of Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Jane. In a 2002 article in the Star-Telegram, he recalled winning an argument with Wodehouse about whether to restore a song from the 1917 production.
In the show, he cast a then-unknown Lainie Kazan as a soprano in the chorus and another obscure young actor, George Segal.
“George would come up to me every night and say: ‘Joe, get me a show. I’m gonna be a star,’ ” Mr. Stecko said in 2002.
Mr. Stecko also conducted the New York production of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Rue McClanahan, among others.
In 1967, he was invited by Casa Mañana artistic director Melvin Dacus to be a temporary conductor in Fort Worth.
That job became permanent.
Eugene Gwozdz, a New York music director, was mentored at Casa by Mr. Stecko.
“I feel like I just lost my father. Everything I learned about being a musical director, I learned from Joe — everything. How to make a musical move and come to life through the music, how to make cuts that make musical sense, how to time dialogue with underscoring, how to make a small band sound like a full orchestra, how to make a song exciting and touching, all these elements are what I learned from Joe,” Gwozdz wrote Thursday.
In 1992, Mr. Stecko met Lexa Northington, a florist who ran Lexa’s Flowers in west Fort Worth. She became his second wife.
Mr. Stecko officially retired in 2002 after Denton Yockey became the new president and CEO of Casa. The organization was making the transition to producing musicals at Bass Performance Hall and planning to renovate the historic in-the-round Casa space into the format it is now.
“He loved music, and although they wanted him to conduct more shows, he decided he didn’t want to be a part of something that was spiraling down,” his wife said.
In 2010, Mr. Stecko was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Live Theatre League of Tarrant County. Another recipient of that honor, actress Deborah Brown, remembers Mr. Stecko for his perfectionism.
“During our work together, I remember fighting with him, singing with him, watching and learning from him,” Brown said. “He was one of the few musical directors I know who felt that the lyrics are just as important as the music, and when in doubt to ‘play the lyric.’ He could get sounds out of you that you never knew you had!”
In addition to his wife, survivors include son Robert Stecko, a music arranger and educator in New York; and granddaughter Laura Claire Burbank-Stecko.