Jerry Russell, the founder of Fort Worth's Stage West and one of the pillars of the North Texas theater community, died early Thursday morning, after being hospitalized for several weeks following complications from abdominal surgery, leading to pneumonia.
The death was announced by his daughter, state Senator Wendy Davis, on her Facebook page.
“He was surrounded by his children and his wife, our stepmom, Suzi [McLaughlin]," Davis wrote. 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.”
Davis had planned to announce her future plans in politics—it's speculated that she'll be a frontrunner as the Democratic nominee for Texas Governor in 2014—but postponed those plans while Russell was in the hospital.
Gerald Oliver Russell, known as "Jerry," was in the third week of directing the current show at Stage West, Thank You Jeeves, when he became sick. It was the first of five titles in Mark Richard's series of adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories that Stage West produced, back in 2001. This was the first Stage West revival of a Jeeves show. The group's 35th season was announced when Thank You, Jeeves opened.
Russell's most recent appearance onstage was in the one-man show Clarence Darrow, which opened the new Studio Theatre at Stage West in April. It was the third time he had played the role, one of his favorites. He was scheduled to appear onstage in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, opposite Doug Jackson. He canceled that soon after becoming ill; R Bruce Elliot will now play that role.
Jac Alder, executive producer-director of Theatre Three in Dallas, mirrored the shock and sadness that swept through the regional theater community on learning of Russell's passing. "It's hard to imagine a world without Jerry," he said. "I'm in shock, and I'm devastated. He was an important figure, and it hurts to lose him. I was hugely impressed with him as an actor, as an acting artist. I'll never forget watching Jerry as the Gravedigger when the Fort Worth Shakespeare company did Hamlet in the park.
"And then you'd turn around and see him cooking spaghetti," Alder added. "Such a wide, swinging spectrum. He was a whole guy."
Cooking was, indeed, a love of Russell's. The origins of Stage West were in Jerry Russell's European Sandwich Shop and Stage Door Deli in downtown Fort Worth. The star sandwich on the menu was the Irving R. Feldman, named for an off-stage character in A Thousand Clowns, in which Russell often played lead character Murray.
"Jerry always enjoyed food service," recalled his wife, actress Suzi McLaughlin. "When he noticed that there was an empty space next door to the deli, he immediately began trying to persuade the owner to knock down the wall.''
The wall came down, and Edward Albee's The Zoo Story went up, with Russell as the insane protagonist and Joe Berryman as the average guy he torments. The success of that production and others led to the opening of Stage West in 1979.
He and McLaughlin met at auditions for Fort Worth Theatre's The Lion in Winter. Later, he directed her in A Company of Wayward Saints at Irving Community Theatre and in You Can't Take It With You at Stage West. They were married on the set of the latter production, and played a married couple onstage, including twice in Alfred Steiglitz Loves O'Keefe.
Russell, a native of Rhode Island, had performed in community theater all his life, often involving his four children from his second wife, Virginia Cornstubble, onstage—including a young Wendy Davis.
Although known primarily for his work in live theater, Russell actually had multiple careers and was successful in all. In his native Rhode Island he worked as a barber, achieving local fame during the flattop era. And he rose in the sales ranks of National Cash Register Company, working in Rhode Island, Oklahoma City and Manhattan and acting in his spare time wherever he went. A final transfer with NCR found Russell in Fort Worth in 1973.
Soon after opening, Stage West moved into a space on West Vickery, and then into a new home in a former movie theater near Texas Christian University in the early 1990s. After some financial troubles spawned by joining forces to form Allied Theatre Group with the now-defunct Shakespeare in the Park, Stage West moved out of that building, which has since been torn down. A bookstore later went up on the property.
After several seasons in itinerate homes, including the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, Stage West found a new home in the same space on Vickery where it once was housed. The first production in this new/old home was Alan Ayckbourn's Seasons Greetings in 2007. The company has become artistically and financially stronger than ever in this spot, and opened up a Studio Theatre in April, 2013. True to his food service roots, the theater has a restaurant called the Old Vic Cafe, which serves meals before shows.
Wendy Davis, who was encouraged by her father to pursue her career path, has often talked about the importance of her dad in her life and career choices. Russell and her mother divorced when she was 11.
"Because my father started a non-profit theater he was not able to be the financial supporter that he had been," Davis said in a phone interview on Thursday, "but he never stopped being our champion and he never disengaged from us. He warded over us and guided us just like any good father would."
Davis says the her father encouraged her to wear those now-iconic pink sneakers, and he watched every minute of her filibuster via live stream.
"He taught me to be fearless, he wasn't afraid of anything," Davis said. "He always put his head down and pursued his passion."
As Russell would have wanted, performances of Thank You, Jeeves, will go on as scheduled. Also, Stage West's 2012 production of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins (directed by Dana Schultes) is currently running at WaterTower Theatre in Addison.
Russell's family would like to welcome members of the theater, Fort Worth and the greater community to join us for a tribute in Jerry’s honor on Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center located at 1300 Gendy Street in Fort Worth.
In his honor the family has established the Jerry Russell Endowment Fund at Stage West to ensure that the quality programs Jerry set out to produce when founding Stage West over 33 years ago will continue long after his death. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Jerry Russell Endowment Fund at Stage West. 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.
Please share your thoughts on Jerry Russell in the comments below.
◊ You can read Mark Lowry's obituary in the online editions of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and DFW.com, here.
◊ Also, here's a repost of a terrific 2002 essay that then-Fort Worth City Council member Wendy Davis wrote about her father in the Star-Telegram.