Final Ovations for the Late Jerry Russell, Beloved Founder of Stage West and Senator Wendy Davis' Father
Photo by Buddy Myers, courtesy of Stage West
Jerry Russell, founder of Fort Worth's Stage West theater and father of state Senator Wendy Davis, has died. The sad news came from Davis, who released this statement Thursday morning: "I am heartbroken to report that my father, Jerry Russell, passed away peacefully in the early hours of this 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, 77, had been directing Stage West's latest production, Thank You, Jeeves, when he became ill and underwent stomach surgery in early August. Post-surgical complications worsened his condition. He remained on a ventilator. The production, closing out Stage West's 34th season, went on without him, opening on August 25 to good reviews.
Star-Telegram critic Mark Lowry's extensive obit tells the story of Russell's long career on local stages, including his own. Russell's most recent performance was in the one-man show Clarence Darrow, which he did last spring to open the new Studio Theatre next to Stage West.
We'll always remember that two of his best performances were at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, where he was brilliant in the two-hander Visiting Mr. Green (alongside Ian Leson) and where his beautifully subtle acting was the only reason to see the old chestnut drama On Golden Pond.
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See also: Jerry Russell Keeps On Golden Pond From Being its Schmaltzy Self
Here, Jerry Russell's colleagues and peers offer tributes to the man they loved as a director, actor and friend:
Jerry Russell and Ian Leson in Visiting Mr. Green at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.
Kevin Moriarty, artistic director, Dallas Theater Center:
"All of us at Dallas Theater Center are deeply saddened by the news of Jerry Russell's passing. Jerry was a legendary figure in our North Texas theater community. 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. Jerry acted in six productions at Dallas Theater Center over the years, including those directed by DTC's former artistic director, Richard Hamburger, and myself. His last appearance on our stage was as Gonzalo in The Tempest in 2011. I had the great pleasure of collaborating with Jerry on that production. I was in awe of his ability to bring Shakespeare's words to life on stage with such beauty and grace, and I was equally enthralled offstage by his stories of a lifetime of creating theater. I was fortunate to see much of his work at Stage West over the years and to count him as a trusted colleague and friend. It's hard to imagine theater in North Texas without Jerry Russell. All of us are grieving and share our condolences with his family." (Russell appeared onstage at DTC in The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, Our Town, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Accidental Death of an Anarchist and The Tempest.)
Joel Ferrell, associate artistic director, Dallas Theater Center:
"I was lucky enough to work with Jerry in several capacities. He directed me, I directed him, and we worked on stage together as actors. He made all that possible out of generosity and trust.
"Jerry expected a lot, demanded a lot, and he had strong opinions and loved to spar. But, he made theater incredibly fun. You never doubted that he loved every insane minute of making a play come to life. And, he created space for so many theater artists to spread their wings. He gave me opportunities that allowed me to be daring and supported me when I was doubting myself.
"Jerry and I appeared together on stage at DTC in The Front Page and I don't think I have ever had more fun -- on stage or off.
"He was a mentor, wonderful colleague and dear friend.
"Jerry seemed ageless and timeless and it feels impossible that he is no longer with us. But, his life was so full and his personality so big-hearted, he is with us whenever we need him."
Jac Alder, founder and artistic director, Theatre Three:
"The awful fresh pain of loss will, in the lonely time we'll have following Jerry's death, be eased by the inspiration he exuded when he was with us. But right now, it feels nothing but awful."
Terry Martin, artistic director, WaterTower Theatre
"Jerry was one of the most important figures in the Texas theater. We are deeply saddened by Jerry's passing, as is our entire industry and the many fans and audiences who enjoyed his work, as well as the artists who had the exceptional pleasure of being part of his work. Jerry was an exceptional leader in the theater, and he has left huge footprints across the cultural landscape of our community. I am blessed to have known Jerry as a friend, colleague and mentor."
Emily Scott Banks, Dallas-Fort Worth actor and director:
"One of the biggest surprises and joys in my times of working at Stage West was during Arms and the Man, where I was lucky enough to play the wife of and comic foil to Jerry's Major Petkoff. Sharing a scene with Jerry, you felt the love both from him for the work, and from the audience for him. His joy for what he did was complete. Every night after our manic breakfast scene, as soon as we hit backstage, he'd turn so we could share our rundown on timing moments we'd nailed, or things we might tweak for an even bigger laugh. He was always hungry and always like a kid let loose at an amusement park and it totally charmed me. Occasionally, if we'd really landed a particularly tight version, he'd come off with a huge grin on his face and say, 'Hot dog, kiddo! THAT'S the way to do it!' He was gracious beyond words, and to be able to share that energy with him was a blessing."
Paul Taylor, actor:
"He taught me so much about strength. Jerry's direction was simple and succinct and perfect. The theater community has lost an incredible man, but the lessons he taught us will live on." (Taylor was directed by and acted with Russell in many Stage West shows, including Biloxi Blues, Nite Club Confidential, Romance/Romance, A House With Two Doors Is Difficult To Guard, The Boys Next Door, The Spitfire Grill and Around the World in Eighty Days.)
Russell Schultz, actor:
"Jerry Russell was the kind of man you wanted to impress. He had a way of making you want to be better, to dig deeper, to pay more attention to detail. And he did this by just being in the room with you. Jerry took a chance on me when I got back to Dallas, and he was responsible for my [Actors] Equity membership. I remember after the play New Jerusalem had closed, Jerry sent me an email with the heading 'A Chance to Do It All Again!' We were supposed to do a reading of the play with the original cast at a church in Fort Worth. Jerry, I would love the chance to do it again -- name the time and place and I'll be there. Goodbye, my friend."
Matthew Tompkins, actor and filmmaker:
"Two of my fondest memories working with the singular Jerry Russell: He played 'The Drunk' in our film Odd Man Out in 2011. He was his typical gracious self and let us transform the lobby of Stage West into a late-night bar with a live rock band. And, of course, playing Sharkey across from him onstage at Stage West in the smash 2009 production of The Seafarer under the direction of René Moreno. A pro's pro and an even better man."
Tim Eaton, founder of Main Street Theatre"
"When I started Main Street Theatre in 1989, Jerry sat me down to tell me what to expect and how to avoid the pitfalls of a community theater. He was gracious and straightforward. Every time I saw him over the years, we talked about that first conversation and I always thanked him for being a gentlemen. That's what I will always remember about Jerry. He was a gentleman."
Lee Trull, DTC's director of new play development:
"Jerry Russell's theater was one of the first in town to hire me to act. Jerry was already a local legend and a vibrant force. He would gush -- in a very manly way -- every time he saw my performance. It was like receiving a compliment from Guthrie or Plummer. Later, when Stage West commissioned me to write a new play based on the Pinocchio story, Jerry played my Geppetto. I wrote the role with him in mind. In the scene where his little wooden puppet becomes a walking, talking boy, Jerry did a back somersault -- every night. Later we shared the stage in The Tempest at Dallas Theater Center. We didn't share any scenes but I made sure to sit near the stage during his rehearsals to hear him speak. His voice was loud, pure and textured. His line readings were clear, complex and joyful. He has been my teacher, my muse and my friend. I will miss him."
A memorial service will take place at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, September 15, at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.
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