Cheryl Crawford, 1902-1986

Cheryl Crawford, probably one of the most influential female producers on Broadway ever, got her start directing plays in her family’s Merriman Road home in Akron.

Crawford, who successfully brought “Brigadoon,” “Porgy and Bess,” “One Touch of Venus,” “Paint Your Wagon” and others to Broadway, was the daughter of Robert Kingsley and Luella Elizabeth Crawford. Her father was the owner of a successful real estate firm (Crawford Real Estate); her mother cared for the four Crawford children.

The eldest of the children and the only girl, Crawford went to grade school and high school in Akron. She then went on to the exclusive Smith College, where she majored in drama. Because she was so tall, she played many of the male roles in the Smith-College productions. But Crawford never wanted to be an actor. She always wanted to be a producer.

After her graduation from Smith College (she was briefly expelled for smoking off campus during her senior year but her grades were so good that the administration relented and let her graduate), Crawford headed for New York City. Using her inheritance, Crawford enrolled in the acting school of the Theatre Guild, even though she had no acting aspirations and admitted as much to the school director and company producer Theresa Helburn. Crawford was allowed to stay because she had the money for the tuition.

After graduation, she went on to be an assistant to a director for the Theatre Guild’s stock company in upper New York and worked part-time, played poker and bottled bathtub gin to pay the bills. In the process, she was getting the experience and contacts she needed to produce. As assistant stage manager on “Pygmalion,” she worked with actor Lynn Fontanne. She worked with famed French director Jacques Copeau on a production of “The Brothers Karamazov” that featured Alfred Lund, Edward G. Robinson, Fontanne and Clare Eames. By 1929, she was experienced enough to take charge of a company heading off for London.

By 1931, Crawford — tired of the Theatre Guild’s lack of focus — made plans to move on, by creating her own company (with Lee Strasberg), The Group Theatre. Building on a group of 28 actors, among them Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, Robert Lewis and Franchot Tone, the group wanted to become a true company so the actors, directors, producers, writers and crew went off to Connecticut to bond and rehearse. Crawford’s primary responsibility in all this was arranging the needed finances, no mean task during these Depression years.

The early Group always seemed to be short of money. Most of the early productions – many of them critical successes – failed to have a long run in New York. Finally in 1933, the Group had its first commercial success, a production that Crawford had pushed for, “Men in White,” a medical drama that won the Pulitzer Price and played in New York for 311 performances.

That didn’t set the pattern, however. Subsequent productions were often critical successes but commercial failures. In 1936 Crawford resigned from the company. As she recalled in her autobiography One Naked Individual: My Fifty Years in the Theatre (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1977), “I felt exhilarated, even cocky, to be on my own. I was going to do great things, bring to audiences distinguished plays, quality entertainment” (p. 103).

Crawford became enormously successful as an independent producer. She started the Maplewood Theatre and brought such actors as Helen Hayes, Bojangles Robinson, Ethel Barrymore, Ingrid Bergman, Tallulah Bankhead, Paul Robeson and others to the stage. Broadway theatre owner Lee Shubert was so impressed with the Maplewood’s production of a revival of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” that he arranged to bring it to Broadway. It became a critical as well as commercial success.

After “Porgy and Bess,” Crawford decided to concentrate on musicals. She then brought “One Touch of Venus” to the stage, signing Marlene Dietrich to the production. Dietrich withdrew, however, when she saw the final script that she said was “too sexy and profane.” So Crawford turned to Mary Martin. Directed by Elia Kazan and choreographed by the legendary Agnes deMille, “One Touch of Venus” was a critical and commercial success, with the production taking most of the top prizes at the first Donaldson Awards. Soon she had other musical successes on Broadway, “Brigadoon” (1947) and “Paint Your Wagon” (1951).

In 1946, she set up yet another company, the American Repertory, with friends Eva LeGallience and Margaret Webster. That company included an impressive array of actors, including Eli Wallach, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., William Windom and Julie Harris, and investors, including William Paley of CBS, Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn and others.

In 1947, she resigned because she was going to start one of the most important acting schools (with an associated theatre) in the nation. She, Elia Kazan and Bobby Lewis created the Actors Studio (Lee Strasberg, the individual most closely identified with the Studio, did not come aboard until 1951). The Actors Studio is credited with training some of the most important actors of the 20th century: Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, James Dean, Sidney Poitier, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Steve McQueen, Joanne Woodward, Jane Fonda, Geraldine Paige, Shelley Winters, Ann Bancroft and many more. In 1976, Crawford reported that Actors Studio graduates had received 98 Academy Award nominations and 21 Oscars. Since then, the number has probably doubled.

Crawford was given the hardest job at the school. “My major task was to keep us solvent,” Crawford recalled in her autobiography. The theatre failed but the school (now under actor Al Pacino’s guidance) continues today. As Crawford explained, “Lee (Strasberg)’s great gifts are teaching and inspirational guidance, not administration and management” (One Naked Individual, p. 227).

Crawford experienced her greatest Broadway successes before 1954. The years 1954 to 1974, she wrote, were lean ones financially and emotionally. Although she had successes with “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “Brecht on Brecht” and “Period of Adjustment,” she also had 15 productions that failed during those two decades.

Her emotional trials were worsened by her wrangling with Sen. Joe McCarthy and his committee on Un-American Activities and the destruction of her home in Connecticut by fire. Her financial situation was worsened when a trusted assistant embezzled a good deal of money from her. Through it all, however, she continued to produce plays.

Crawford died in New York City on October 7, 1986. During her life, Crawford produced more than 100 plays and helped create one of the most successful acting schools in the nation. She was well regarded by other producers, directors and actors.

In September 2002, the New York Public Library celebrated her contributions to the theatre with the Crawford Centennial. Her papers are located in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the University of Houston Library.

All photos are reprinted from Cheryl Crawford, One Naked Individual: My Fifty Years in the Theatre (Indianapolis & New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1977). Middle photo shows the Group Theatre directors, from left, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford in 1931 (photo from the Blackman Photo Service). Bottom photo shows rehearsals for “Strange Interlude.” From left, Cheryl Crawford, Pat Hingle, Ben Gazzara, Jane Fonda, Franchot Tone and Geraldine Page (photo by Joseph Abeles).

–Kathleen Endres