One of the true pioneers of South Florida professional theater has died. Michael Hall, 77, co-founder and artistic director of Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre company, died June 15 of complications from pancreatic cancer.
With seed money from James R. Caldwell, founder of the Rubbermaid kitchen utensils company, Hall was encouraged to create a not-for-profit playhouse in southern Palm Beach County where Pennsylvanian Caldwell wintered.
In 1995, Hall described to me the theater scene 20 years earlier. Building and sustaining a company like the Caldwell was a major leap of faith.
“There was almost nothing,” he recalled. “Various dinner theaters had come and gone. There was no regional theater here. There literally was nothing.”
The Caldwell was almost a fast fade-out as well, after Hall – misjudging and underestimating his audience here – opened the playhouse on the campus of the College of Boca Raton with Neil Simon’s The Star-Spangled Girl. The comic trifle which Hall would later describe as “the worst thing Neil Simon ever wrote,” played to empty audiences and Hall learned that South Florida theatergoers were starved for plays of quality.
Before long, he was directing productions of classics by Shaw, Ibsen and Steinbeck and the Caldwell developed a following. Ten years later, Hall went out on an artistic limb and, despite the strong objection of his board, he mounted the regional premiere of Martin Sherman’s Bent, a graphic drama of the persecution of gay concentration camp prisoners.
“We were terrified, because really and truly, no theater down here had ever done anything quite that explicit,” recalled Hall. The gamble paid off. Audiences flocked to the Caldwell to see Bent, which went on to sweep that year’s Carbonell Awards and cement the theater’s place in the cultural community.
That place was largely mainstream, with an emphasis on recent successes in New York. Asked in 1995 to single out some of his favorite Caldwell productions over the years, Hall mentioned Bent, A.R. Gurney’s The Middle Ages, Our Betters by Somerset Maugham. He recalled Jerry Sterner’s financial comedy Other People’s Money, the bioplay of Ernest Hemingway, Papa, and the musical look at marriage, Stephen Sondheim’s Company, as some of the Caldwell’s most commercially successful shows.
For most of the last 15 years of his tenure at the Caldwell, Hall was deeply involved in trying to raise the money to replace the makeshift theater in Levitz Plaza. Determined to amass the needed $8 million without resorting to a mortgage, Hall eventually opened the Count de Hoernle Theatre in 2007. His puckish choice for an opening production? Doubt.
Hall retired two years later, devoting much of his time to his twin hobbies of travel and photography. He also wrote and privately published a two-volume history of the Caldwell Theatre, which he had spent so much of his life running and managing. (The theater closed in 2012, and was taken over by Marilynn Wick to become The Wick Theatre and Costume Museum.)
As he once said at age 55, “I still look at the world as a kid. I have tremendous curiosity about life and I love to have fun in the theater. Sometimes if you look at things with unjaded, childlike eyes, it really tends to make people happier and make life a little more fun.”