RALEIGH — Haskell Lee Fitz-Simons, artistic director and an ebullient creative force at Raleigh Little Theatre for three decades, died late Sunday evening at UNC Hospital from lymphoma.
Fitz-Simons, 64, was known for his many talents, including acting, singing, dancing and directing, as well as a knack for encouraging others to explore and expand their talents, according to family members and friends.
“He was a very approachable, open person, yet he had a wicked and wonderful sense of humor,” said Becky Johnston, an actor and former member of the board of Raleigh Little Theatre. “He was always quick with a comeback. And he was a very good teacher. He taught me so much about acting.”
Fitz-Simons directed more than 160 productions during his tenure at Raleigh Little Theatre, the last, Cinderella, concluded its run on Dec. 16. Raleigh Little Theatre is a nonprofit community theater founded in 1936 that produces about a dozen shows a year with a staff of 10 and dozens of volunteers.
“In addition to being talented, Haskell was sensitive and compassionate,” said Charles Phaneuf, executive director of the theater. “He cared a lot about people and wanted them to be their best selves, whether or not they would ever go on to become a professional actor or director.”
Fitz-Simons was the son of the late Foster and Marion Tatum Fitz-Simons, both prominent figures in North Carolina’s theater community for many years. Foster Fitz-Simons, who died in 1991, taught in the drama department at UNC-Chapel Hill and was a successful author. Marion Fitz-Simons, who died in 2001, was a founder of the N.C. School of the Arts, an actor and English teacher.
Haskell was the youngest of four Fitz-Simons brothers, all of whom performed with their parents during seasonal productions of “Unto These Hills,” an outdoor drama in Cherokee that tells the story of the forced evacuation of Indians from the region in the 1830s, in an exodus known as the Trail of Tears.
But only Haskell continued in the profession as an adult, said Terence Fitz-Simons, a brother who lives in Raleigh and works as a health care program manager for the state.
“From early on, you could tell that Haskell’s interests ran in the direction of the theater,” Terence Fitz-Simons said. “He was always very outgoing and friendly.”
Haskell Fitz-Simons attended Christ School, a preparatory school in Arden, before enrolling at UNC-Chapel Hill. He graduated in 1979 with a master of fine arts degree in directing, then spent two years as a visiting artist at Vance-Granville Community College and two more teaching drama at the University of Wisconsin before signing on as artistic director at Raleigh Little Theatre in 1983.
Dennis Rogers of Raleigh, an actor and former columnist for The News & Observer, was a board member at Raleigh Little Theatre when Fitz-Simons was hired.
‘Felt at home here’
“He loved the theater, and the thought of being able to direct shows just seemed to thrill him to no end,” Rogers said. “Of course, there’s not a lot of money in it. Talented people like Haskell can do a lot better than working in community theater, but he felt at home here.”
One particularly memorable occasion at Raleigh Little Theatre occurred during a late-1980s production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of our Teeth,” Rogers said.
“He had cast his mother, a wonderful character actor, in the role of a fortune teller,” Rogers said. “She did such a turn, and it was a delight watching Haskell direct his own mother, who knew more than any of us did about the theater. Yet she was very patient and supportive.”
Caroling, dancing, singing
Fitz-Simons was a founding member of Oakwood Waits, a “Dickens-era” caroling group formed in 1983. He also enjoyed attending English contra dances and singing in the choir at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, said Dennis Poole, a friend and assistant director at Raleigh Little Theatre.
“It was a pleasure to watch him direct,” Poole said. “One of his big things when giving notes to actors was to say, ‘Write it down, write it down, write it down!’ He was our director, but he was also our friend.”
From the time he was a teenager, Fitz-Simons traveled east every summer to work in the annual production of “The Lost Colony,” an outdoor drama based on the disappearance of a group of English settlers on Roanoke Island in the 1580s.
Ira David Wood III, executive director of Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park, learned of Fitz-Simons’ death while in Manteo preparing for the upcoming Lost Colony season, which Wood will direct.
“Haskell loved ‘The Lost Colony’ and stayed very active, including serving as head of the alumni association,” Wood said.
Active until the end
Wood said he met with Fitz-Simons last month to discuss music for the outdoor play, and the Raleigh Little Theatre director assured Wood he would be available for consultation while remaining in Raleigh for chemotherapy.
“He always had a brilliant mind, and was a fountain of knowledge,” Wood said.
“Plus he had a great sense of humor and a zest for life. He found joy in eating and drinking. A lot of people rush through life, but Haskell knew how to savor it.”
“The Lost Colony” cast and crew met Monday morning and observed a moment of silence after hearing of Fitz-Simons’ death, Wood said.
Then talk turned to the ending scene of the outdoor drama, where the colonists leave the stage. It’s known as “The Final March.”
“It has always been said that when you are a member of the company, you never die,” Wood said. “You only take the final march.”
Plans for a memorial services for Haskell Fitz-Simons were incomplete Monday. Terence Fitz-Simons said his brother asked to be cremated and his ashes sprinkled in the mountains of Western North Carolina.