Craig Noel, founding director of the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, died April 3 at age 94. Uptown News asked Middletown resident Welton Jones, the arts and entertainment editor and theatre critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1966-2001, to offer his thoughts on Noel’s life and legacy.
There has never before been anybody quite like Craig Noel in the 300-year history of the American Theatre. Not even close, really.
Craig Noel is the string you pull to open the story of the Old Globe Theatre. His involvement with the theatre includes every one of its 75 years, usually in key positions. There has been no more lengthy association of leader and institution, maybe not ever, anywhere.
When members of the Barn Players took over the temporary structure used for Shakespeare snippets during the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park, the 21-year-old Noel, already a fixture in San Diego theatre, played a part in the first production, John Van Druten’s “The Distaff Side.”
Two years later he was directing everything. After Army service in World War II, when the Globe was basically on hiatus, and some time in Hollywood, Noel was persuaded to return as boss. He was pretty much a one-man management group until the early 1980s, when he restructured the office to run the newly-rebuilt theatre, with Jack O’Brien as artistic director, Tom Hall as managing director and himself as “executive producer.”
I asked him at the time what that title meant.
“It means,” he replied, in what I think is one of the most classic organizational descriptions I’ve ever heard, “that Jack will be doing 80 percent of what I’ve always done, I will be doing 80 percent of what I’ve always WANTED to do and Tom will make it all possible.”
That included working more with students, basking in his theatre’s success and spending more time with his own directing assignments, which seemed to get ever deeper and richer.
Under Noel’s guidance, the Old Globe grew in a long, gradual curve, never victim of the jagged rollercoaster highs and lows that exhaust so many cultural institutions. In retrospect, Noel’s Globe just kept getting better in every way, each season a slight improvement somewhere, until it came to be accepted widely as one of the very best.
It couldn’t have been easy for Craig Noel, being patient while his theatre matured, watching colleagues elsewhere blossom and fade while he struggled with a budget that was professional only for a few months each season.
The summers were Shakespeare by the pros but the winter seasons meant finding non-pro casts willing to rehearse for five weeks and then perform for what grew to four seven-performance weeks – without salaries.
While Noel fueled countless careers, his most impressive feat was finding and maintaining such a quality pool of unpaid actors. He wasn’t always beloved, especially in the early days, but he was always in charge. And actors, like Globe supporters throughout the community, came to rely on his shrewd judgment and inspirational enthusiasm.
And it wasn’t only the Globe that benefited from Noel’s leadership. Theatre, dance, music, museums and schools all had boosts from the Globe ranging from major collaborations to budget-friendly costume and equipment loans.
In 44 years of watching Globe shows, I reviewed Noel time and again, interviewed him often and even visited with him a bit. Our association always was professional, not social. But after a couple of decades, our conversations became ongoing, just subject to lengthy interruptions.
Once he called me on somebody’s behalf to ask a favor I couldn’t deliver. We discussed it a bit and he sighed, then said, “Welton, you know, I’m too old, too rich and too famous to worry about this.”
It took me a moment to register that he was NOT saying he was old, rich or famous but only that he just didn’t have the time and inclination to bother with that particular errand any longer.
I treasure a handful of such Noel lines for their wit and for their economy.
When the Globe moved to the Spreckels Theatre for a couple of shows after the theatre burned down in 1978, there was concern about the Spreckels acoustics, notorious at the time. But Noel’s non-pro casts seemed to have no trouble. I asked him why.
“Oh,” he answered with that cherub smile, “I just told them to speak up.”
Jack O’Brien, now a busy Broadway fixture, once noted during his days as Globe boss: “Imagine, having that guy just down the hallway to try ideas on.”
Craig Noel was beyond the mere status of community treasure. He well may be the city’s single most important artistic figure of the 20th century. More, perhaps, than the city deserves.
And his influence will continue to ripple outward, even as people gradually forget the man himself, for…oh, forever.