Raleigh theater director remembered

May 19, 2013 

 

So, was it “The Raleigh Little Theater’s Haskell Lee Fitz-Simons” or “Haskell Lee Fitz-Simons’ Raleigh Little Theater”? Interchangeable, maybe that’s the way to describe how local theater folk felt about the effervescent artistic director of RLT, a man who joined the group in 1983 and directed 160 productions, including “Cinderella,” which closed Dec. 16. Fitz-Simons died last week of lymphoma in Chapel Hill.

He’s survived, it might be said, by several generations of actors who viewed him as mentor, friend, sometimes as parent. He was a man who helped novices break in to show business at the very special local level. And he helped keep RLT a force in the community. Still going today, it was founded in 1936.

Fitz-Simons was the son of actors and teachers, and he performed in two of the state’s most notable ongoing productions, the outdoor dramas “Unto These Hills” in Cherokee and “The Lost Colony” in Manteo, from an early age. His interest in “The Lost Colony” stayed with him until the end. He was recently consulting with Ira David Wood III, who’ll direct the coming season of the play. “He always had a brilliant mind, and was a fountain of knowledge,” Wood said.

There must have been thousands of people who passed through RLT under Fitz-Simons’ direction over 30 years, many of them local folks who might have just been “trying out” as actors and never did but one or two productions. Fitz-Simons appreciated the theater’s “duty” to the community to offer that kind of outreach and encouragement.

Others stayed with RLT productions for many years, and they were known to audiences who’d greet them with applause in play after play.

One was Dennis Rogers, whose day job was writing a column for The News & Observer. Rogers was a prize-winning actor in RLT who was nurtured by Fitz-Simons. “He felt at home here,” said Rogers, noting that Fitz-Simons might have done better financially going to a bigger city.

But he didn’t. And Raleigh was a bigger city because of him.

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