Fort Worth — Joe Stecko, who was the music director at Casa Mañana for 35 years and was named Music Director Emertius upon his retirement in 2002, died at 4:08 a.m. on Aug. 21 at the hospice at Baylor All Saints in Fort Worth. He was hospitalized with double pneumonia two-and-a-half weeks ago. He was 91.
In his long history with Casa Mañana, he conducted many notable performers, including Betty Buckley, Ruta Lee and Hal Linden. Lee nicknamed him "The Silver Eagle" because of his eagle eye.
The son of a Ukrainian father and Czech mother, he was born March 19, 1923 in Pittsburgh, Penn. His love of music led to three degrees from Carnegie Institute of Technology School of Music (now Carnegie Mellon) and work on the East Coast.
Stecko worked in New York, conducting such shows as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (starring Rue McClanahan) and a revival of Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse's Leave It To Jane, in which he cast a then-unknown Lainie Kazan and George Segal. He also had a guest stint with the CBS Symphony and conducted the Metropolitan Opera's brass section in Berlioz's Requiem at Carnegie Hall.
He came to Texas when he was hired by Casa Artistic Director Melvin Dacus as a temporary replacement for ailing conductor Arthur Lief in 1967, and became the musical director soon after.
The funeral will be 2 p.m. Monday, Aug. 25 at Holy Family Catholic Church, 6150 Pershing Ave., Fort Worth. Stay tuned for more updates. Above is a video of unknown origin we found on YouTube, with some archival photos of Joe.
You can read Mark Lowry's full obit in the Star-Telegram here.
We're also collecting some thoughts from people who worked with him. Here's a sample. If you want to add thoughts, please comment below.
Betty Buckley, who was conducted by Joe Stecko in several shows at Casa Mañana, on Facebook:
"So very sad to hear that our dear, beautiful, wonderful friend, teacher & great Music Director/Conductor Joseph Stecko passed away this morning. He was 91 years old. Loved him with all my heart. Grew up working with Joe leading the orchestra for several shows at Casa Manana. He taught me so much & was such a great heart & 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. RIP, dearest Joe. You are deeply loved & will be sorely missed."
Eugene Gwozdz, a New York-based music director, and Fort Worth native, who was mentored by Joe Stecko at Casa Mañana:
"I'm so sad and 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, who is the epitome of what a true Musical Director is."
Deborah Brown, an actress with a long history at Casa. Debbie is a recent lifetime achievement award winner from the Live Theatre League of Tarrant County, an award Stecko won in 2010:
“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!”
Persis Ann Forster, a former Casa performer and choreographer:
“He was very single-minded. Sometimes in rehearsal, if we were acting up, he would rein people back in because he was determined to get the sound he wanted.”
Joel Ferrell, former artistic director at Casa:
"My fondest memory is how powerfully Joe taught us all that the music comes first in a musical. It may sound obvious, but musical directors are often thought of as secondary to the director. Joe was never secondary. He was the man in charge and we looked to that baton in the pit to keep us all on track. He was strength personified."