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Tony-winning actor Keene Curtis dies

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BOUNTIFUL — Keene Curtis, a Utah native who won a Tony Award in 1971 for the Broadway musical "The Rothschilds" and who appeared in more than 90 film and television productions, died Sunday morning at age 79 in the Heritage Place retirement center in Bountiful of complications due to Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Curtis was born on Feb. 15, 1923, in Salt Lake City and grew up in Bountiful. He studied theater at the University of Utah in the 1940s, interrupted by service in the Navy during World War II.

"I chased submarines — hopefully the enemies'," he said in a biographical sketch he wrote prior to receiving a Distinguished Service Award from the U. in 1973.

Returning to the U. in 1946, one of his first major stage roles was playing Lennox in Orson Welles' production of "Macbeth," staged in Kingsbury Hall as part of the Utah centennial celebration in 1947. The following year he played the same role in Welles' screen version.

During the 1950s, Mr. Curtis spent much of his time as a behind-the-scenes stage manager for Martha Graham's Dance Company, then got back into acting when he became involved with an "idealistic theater group" known as the Association of Producing Artists. His colleagues during this period included Helen Hayes, Uta Hagen, Katharine Cornell, Noel Coward, Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power and many others.

His first musical was "The Rothschilds," based on the formative years of the renowned European financial family. Other stage works included the national tours of "La Cage Aux Folles," co-starring Peter Marshall, and an extensive tour of "Annie," in which he drew rave reviews for his role as Daddy Warbucks.

In the fall of 1972 Mr. Curtis appeared in one of Broadway's most expensive flops — a $900,000 "space musical" called "Via Galactica." "I confess to a perverse satisfaction of having survived a total flop," he once said.

His first TV appearance was in an episode of "Hawaii Five-O" in 1968. For two decades, beginning in the mid-1970s, most of his work was in television productions, including the ongoing role of pompous landlord John Allen Hill in "Cheers."

In recent years, he returned to his alma mater on several occasions to visit with students in the theater department. In 1994 he donated several boxes of his papers, including scripts and other memorabilia, to the U. library. In 1998 he donated $12,500 to the U. for scholarships.

A dressing room at Kingsbury Hall was renovated and named in his honor during this time, and the theater's mezzanine level "museum lobby" showcases his 1972 Tony Award, photographs from "Macbeth" and "La Cage Aux Folles," a reproduction of a painting by Utah artist Alvin Gittins that shows him in all four of the roles he played in "The Rothschilds," and the jewel-encrusted cane he used in "La Cage Aux Folles."

Funeral services are tentatively scheduled for Saturday at Russon Bros. Mortuary in Bountiful. His family said a memorial service is also planned later in Los Angeles.