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Utahn played a starring role in S.L. Valley theater
Students, peers to pay tribute to Wilson at U.

Colleagues of Robert Hyde Wilson, whose legacy includes founding Salt Lake City's legendary Playbox Theatre and opening the Opera House at Lagoon, figure the retired actor, director and educator probably touched and influenced the lives of nearly 3,500 students and actors during his long and prolific career.

Wilson, who was born Oct. 29, 1914, in Salt Lake City, will receive an appropriately theatrical 85th birthday tribute this afternoon (Oct. 24) at Kingsbury Hall. Students in the University of Utah's Actor Training program -- some of whom may be potential recipients of the acting scholarships Wilson has endowed at the school -- will stage a brief production touching on highlights from his life. (RSVPs for the event were due last week. If you didn't respond, it's too late.)Even as a child, Wilson was fond of theater.

"I was a downtown brat," he said last week during a telephone conversation from his room at St. Joseph Villa rest home. Today he is confined to a wheelchair, but when he was a youngster, he walked a lot.

He and his family lived in the old Wilson Hotel, owned by his grandfather, Frank M. Wilson. Wilson's walks to and from school would take him past the Salt Lake Theatre, where he enjoyed standing in the wings, watching scenery being loaded and unloaded.

"I always like theater," Wilson noted. "The hotel used to get free passes for letting the old Wilkes Theatre put posters up in their lobby. We were only a block and a half from the theater, so we could always go to the theater for free."

(The Wilkes later became known as the Lyric and, most recently, the now-shuttered Promised Valley Playhouse.)

In a 1948 feature story about Wilson, written by Cristie Freed for the Deseret News, it was noted that Wilson and his siblings -- two sisters and a brother -- witnessed not only many of the early talking pictures and some of the old silents, they also saw the dying days of the old vaudeville circuit.

Before entering the U., Wilson considered possible careers in painting (a water color of pink rosebuds won him a first-place award in a Salt Lake Boys' Day contest when he was 15), then journalism (he was assistant editor of West High School's Red and Black newspaper), and even a concert pianist, after taking lessons from his cousin, Sterling Fogelberg.

Then came a turning point.

Although he was contemplating majoring in business after he had mastered typing and shorthand at West High, someone suggested he take Maude May Babcock's interpretation class.

You can probably guess what direction his life took from there.

His early years in theater included toiling backstage, plus some minor roles in productions at the U., and directing plays for the 12th, 13th and 18th LDS wards and the University LDS ward, plus pageants for the church's Mutual Improvement Association.

"Whenever the pageant was on a patriotic theme, I was Benjamin Franklin. I cannot recall how may times I was Benjamin Franklin," he said in the 1948 Deseret News article.

About the time he graduated, he was invited to be one of the directors for the Salt Lake Little Theater, which produced plays in the old Masonic Temple.

Then, in 1938, he and Robert Freed founded the Playbox Theatre, which became renowned as "the finest midget legitimate theater this side of the Rockies."

The Playbox bounced around quite a bit, including the historic David Keith mansion on 100 South.

"It seated about 50," recalls Wilson. "We did plays in various parts of the house -- the library, the front room . . . it was a gorgeous house with a big fireplace. The doors into the hallway were like a theater proscenium. We would never close them. Audiences could see through the doors down the long hallway.

"The Liberty Park area was our next big move," Wilson said, then the troupe moved into a restaurant at 1300 South and 500 East, after which "we started doing plays in the basement of Kingsbury Hall."

The last official location for the Playbox was a small building on the U. campus on the southeast corner of University Street and 100 South. This structure, still standing, was recently renovated for the U.'s music and opera programs -- and it's been given a new name.

The venerable old Playbox is now the Voicebox.

Local actress Anne Cullimore Decker, who is part of a committee helping plan today's celebration for Wilson, noted that the Voicebox space will be open during the day, so that friends of the longtime director can see where he produced such shows as "Waiting for Godot," Agatha Christie's "10 Little Indians," the Broadway comedy "Bernardine," plus "Sorry, Wrong Number" and "If Men Played Cards Like Women Do."

Those were just a few of the nearly 190 productions Wilson directed between 1937 and 1986. The statistics of his directorial career are pretty impressive: 75 plays at the Playbox (or its various incarnations), 35 at Kingsbury Hall, 25 on the Pioneer Memorial Theatre stage, 13 in the Babcock Theatre, 32 in the Lagoon Opera House and several others, including two productions for the Classical Greek Theatre Festival.

Many of Wilson's longtime colleagues point to the old Playbox Theatre as laying the foundation for the broad array of community, professional and semi-professional companies enjoyed by theatergoers across the state today.

The Playbox closed in the mid-1960s (by this time additional theaters were opening in the area, including Theatre 138 and Salt Lake Acting Company), but two of Wilson's dearest friends -- brothers Robert and Peter Freed -- decided to construct the Lagoon Opera House, similar to the intimate theaters scattered around the Northeast and the upper East Coast.

"The Opera House was Bob's idea," Peter Freed said last week. "Our mother goes back to the old Salt Lake Theatre days. My brother had this idea for the Opera House, and he turned the whole thing over to me. It was one of the most fun things I've ever done in my life. It was also Robert's idea to get Wilson involved as director. Both of them started the Playbox."

Freed also credits Wilson with getting him into theater -- and changing his life in the process. "I was so extremely shy, and I said I absolutely would not act in any of his shows. But he kept after me. In addition to what it did for me (boosting my self-esteem), I met some of the most wonderful people, and that was a great bonus."

Some of the shows Freed appeared in included "My Dear Children" (1942), "Personal Appearance" (1940) and "The Male Animal" (1946).

During the 13 years that Wilson directed the Opera House operations, there were such memorable productions as "The Fantasticks," "The Pajama Game," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Applause."

Part of Wilson's long and prolific career encompasses the period when the late Keith Engar would bring well-known Broadway, film and television personalities in to star in U. productions.

Some of these shows, directed by Wilson, included Edward Everett Horton in "The White Sheep of the Family" (1956); Victor Jory, who performed many times as a stock player at the old Wilkes, in "The Happiest Millionaire" (1958); Mildred Dunnock in "Elizabeth the Queen" (also 1958); Robert Q. Lewis in "The Gazebo (1959); Arlene Frances and Mary Cooper in "Old Acquaintance" (1961); Jan Sterling in "The Lion in Winter" (1981); and television star Richard Erdman in several productions, including "Charley's Aunt" (1963) and "Thurber's Carnival" (1964).

There are dozens of local residents who have fond memories of being directed by Wilson.

One of them is Helen Sandack, whose first appearance in a Wilson play was "Personal Appearance," which also featured Peter Freed.

"This was the beginning of a long and happy relationship" with the director, Sandack said, continuing on through "Thurber Carnival" and "Light Up the Sky," among others. Sandack's family was involved in theater for years. Her daughter, Nancy Borgenicht, is co-producer at Salt Lake Acting Company.

"I always felt I was fortunate living here and raising my family and doing all the plays," said Sandack. "I took Robert some matzo ball soup, which he loves, when I went to visit him this spring."

Another longtime associate of Wilson's in the community is Anne Decker.

For many years, Wilson has provided scholarships for acting students at the school. Although in recent years, Wilson had maintained an apartment in New York City, since returning to Salt Lake City he's taken a personal interest in the scholarships.

Decker noted that she had always made sure he could attend the scholarship auditions in person, but last year "he was just getting over a bout with pneumonia and I knew I could not take him out of the rest home."

Decker told him she would pick out the top three and bring them to St. Joseph Villa for him to interview in person.

"So that's what we did," Decker explained. "They auditioned as if they were trying out for a New York producer. Wilson took down notes on a piece of paper and asked them for their comments. They met with him for one hour and they were thrilled.

"His mind is still there, and the critic and teacher and director are all still there," said Decker, but his body is slowing down.

The students went back to the U. and told the theater department head, David Dynak, how exciting it was for them to meet Wilson.

"Dynak instigated this whole event," said Decker, "so the students can see who this man is who gives them scholarships.

"At first we thought we'd get maybe 40 or 50 people -- and now we're getting more than three times that."

Decker first worked with Wilson in "The Chalk Garden" (1956).

"Our relationship has been most interesting," she said. "As a 17-year-old acting student, I was so wanting to work with him but never had the courage to introduce myself. Then he saw a performance of mine in the Little Theatre and got the word out that he wanted to work with 'that' girl. He kept forgetting my name, and to this day, he forgets people's names."

Decker said there are elements of Robert's influence in her own directorial jobs, but one of her most wonderful memories is when Wilson came to see her performance twice in Salt Lake Acting Company's "Master Class."

"He said he was extremely thrilled with my performance, and getting complemented by him was the 'final complement' for me," she said.

Wilson said he loved teaching.

"I'm a tough teacher. The students would get mad at me, but that was just too bad. If they don't love what you teach, they shouldn't come to you," he said.

"I've known Anne Decker for some time and I always kid her that 'I made you the actress you are.' But she had to be that way before I met her or I couldn't have helped her," he said.