Center Theatre Group mourns the loss of our Founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson, who passed away on October 2, 2016. Davidson led the company for 38 years, transforming Los Angeles into a center of the regional theatre movement and changing the American artistic and cultural landscape in the process.
“Gordon was a giant in the American theatre and a visionary leader. His words, his work, and his wisdom will continue to reverberate and will impact us for years to come,” said Artistic Director Michael Ritchie. “At Center Theatre Group he established a footprint for Los Angeles theatre, for diverse theatre, and for new voices and new audiences. His influence was felt across the country.”
Davidson was in his early 30s when Dorothy Buffum Chandler tapped him to lead Center Theatre Group in its inaugural 1967/1968 Season at The Music Center. “I walked into the theatre with a hard hat. The seats were in. Later, I had nightmares about little and some big mistakes or omissions,” recalled Davidson of his first official meeting with Chandler. “But none of it mattered when I stood on the stage and felt the power of an audience sitting there.”
Davidson chose to open the Taper by directing John Whiting’s The Devils, with Frank Langella in a starring role. The play’s scandalous depiction of 17th century Catholic clergy ignited instant controversy; The Devils also set the thought-provoking tone for which Center Theatre Group would become known around the world. Over the next four decades, Davidson produced landmark Taper works like Zoot Suit, a sensation in Los Angeles that broke new ground and became the first Latino play on Broadway; Children of a Lesser God and The Shadow Box, both of which he directed at the Taper then moved on to Tony Award-winning Broadway runs; and The Kentucky Cycle and Angels in America, which Center Theatre Group played a key role in developing. In 1992 and 1993, Center Theatre Group was distinguished by having The Kentucky Cycle and Angels in America (Part One—Millennium Approaches) receive consecutive Pulitzer Prizes in Drama, the first time for plays produced outside of New York.
In 1989, Davidson took over the programming of the Ahmanson Theatre. Under Davidson’s watch, The Phantom of the Opera broke box office records during a four-year run, becoming the West Coast’s most commercially successful theatrical production of all time. Stars appearing in Ahmanson productions under Davidson included John Lithgow, Laurence Fishburne, Alan Alda, Chita Rivera, Neil Patrick Harris, Ian McKellen, Christopher Plummer, Vanessa Williams, Savion Glover, John Leguizamo, and Lily Tomlin.
In his final season at Center Theatre Group, 2004/2005, Davidson fulfilled a long-held dream with the opening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, a home for new and innovative work. In that first season, six plays had their World premieres at the Douglas, including the Davidson-directed inaugural production A Perfect Wedding.
Davidson also oversaw the creation of Center Theatre Group’s award-winning education programming and a robust artistic development program. Generations of young people in Los Angeles were introduced to theatre, and countless artists around the country got their start thanks in large part to his work and support.
Davidson’s impact could also be felt in his numerous national appointments, awards, and nominations including Tony Awards, Margo Jones Awards for his work in encouraging new plays and playwrights, the Theater Hall of Fame on Broadway, the National Council on the Arts, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and his time as president of Theatre Communications Group and the League of Resident Theatres.
Indeed, Artistic Director Michael Ritchie was well aware of Davidson long before they first met in New York City 35 years ago, when Ritchie was stage manager at Circle in the Square Theatre. “I was walking down the hall one day and I heard a voice yelling, ‘Michael! Michael! Are you Michael?’” said Ritchie. “I was so impressed that Gordon, who I knew of really well, had heard of me—but more importantly had gone out of his way to chase me down and introduce himself to me. Since I’ve arrived here he’s been one of my key supporters and one of my key sounding boards.”
Ritchie and the rest of our staff—those who worked with Davidson directly, many of whom are still here as well as those who know him by reputation alone—feel the loss deeply. Our condolences go out to Davidson’s surviving family: his wife, Judi; their children, Adam and Rachel; and five granddaughters. They have asked that any donations in his memory be made to the Gordon Davidson Emerging Artists Fund (LibertyHill.org/EmergingArtists) and the Gordon Davidson Archive Fund (LibertyHill.org/DavidsonArchive).
A memorial event will take place on January 9, 2017 at the Ahmanson Theatre.