Charles Hull: He Brought Affordable, Exceptional Musicals and Drama to Children Who Might Never See a Broadway Show

From a New York Times obit by Daniel E. Slotnik headlined “Charles Hull, Who Brought Theater to Young Audiences, Dies at 92”:

Charles Hull, who co-founded Theaterworks USA, a touring theater company that has brought professional performances to tens of millions of young people across the country, died in Manhattan.

Mr. Hull, who had been an Off Broadway, summer stock and commercial actor, founded the company that became Theaterworks in 1961 with the director Jay Harnick. For decades, Mr. Hull was the company’s managing director and Mr. Harnick its artistic director.

The idea was to bring affordable, exceptional musicals and drama to children who might never get to see a Broadway or an Off Broadway show. By the late 1990s, Mr. Hull and Mr. Harnick were staging as many as 20 made-to-move productions in nearly 500 cities a year without the fuss, or expense, of a Broadway effort.

The plays and musicals were short, the players nimble, often performing several roles in one show and doubling as the crew. Sets were minimalist and versatile, adaptable to a plethora of venues. “The term we use is cafegymatorium,” Michael Harrington, Theaterworks’ current executive director, said.

According to Mr. Hull, only pared-down productions were viable.

“If you have to have a crew of 10 to set up a show, there’s no way you can do it,” he told The New York Times in 1996. “The cast in our shows, from six to eight people, are the crew. They put up a set, and in an hour, there you are. If the show is good, you don’t need all those tons of Andrew Lloyd Webber things.”

Many shows were biographical, about luminaries like Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson and Pocahontas. Others were literary adaptations of childhood favorites, like the Magic School Bus books, or of more adult fare, like “Don Quixote.” They tackled difficult topics, among them slavery, addiction and racism, without talking down to their audience.

“Theaterworks productions are professional, highly entertaining and never condescending,” The Christian Science Monitor said in 1986.

In 2005, The Times wrote that “the company has developed a strong reputation as a reliable source of intelligent and well-acted productions for young audiences.”

Theaterworks did not just introduce young people to theater — it also introduced up-and-coming actors, composers, directors and writers to show business. The company’s alumni include the actors F. Murray Abraham and Henry Winkler, the four-time Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks and the Tony-winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens.

The company was successful and prolific. Mr. Harrington, the executive director, said it had created 148 shows and performed for more than 100 million young people, playing in every state except Hawaii. The company has received special Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Awards for its work in children’s theater, among other honors.

Mr. Hull was born Karl Rudolf Horvat in Vienna, the only child of Bernard and Hermine (Mayr) Horvat. His father owned a jewelry store, which was confiscated by the Nazis after they annexed Austria in 1938.

The Horvat family fled West — Karl, who had blonde hair and blue eyes, smuggled jewelry in his clothing, his family said — and eventually settled in East Orange, N.J., where a relative encouraged them to Americanize their names. Mr. Hull’s father died a few years after they arrived, and his mother became a real estate agent.

Mr. Hull attended Lehigh University in Pennsylvania on a football scholarship and graduated with a degree in business administration in 1953. He served as a lieutenant in the Air Force in England until 1955, when he accepted a sales job with a steel company in Ohio.

Throughout his military service and his years as a salesman, Mr. Hull honed his skills as an actor, taking parts in amateur and community theater. In his late 20s, he traded his steady job for a life as an actor and moved to New York City. He studied under Lee Strasberg and acted in Off Broadway and summer stock productions.

Theaterworks sprang from a Broadway flop.

The catalyst was “Young Abe Lincoln,” a musical that Mr. Harnick directed and which Mr. Hull joined as an actor. After a successful Off Broadway run, the show moved to Broadway. It earned effusive reviews but lasted only 27 performances.

After consulting with friends, Mr. Harnick and Mr. Hull began booking the show in schools around New York State. In the late 1960s, they registered the company as the Performing Arts Repertory Theater, which they later changed to Theaterworks USA.

For Mr. Hull, Theaterworks was a calling more than an occupation. For many years, his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan served as its office. When the company faced financial headwinds, he acted in television commercials for companies like Chevrolet and Amoco to help his family stay afloat.

And although he and Mr. Harnick officially retired in 2000, Mr. Hull kept coming into the office for almost two more decades.

He was “really ambitious and passionate about the mission of the organization,” Mr. Harrington said.

Daniel E. Slotnik is a general assignment reporter on the Metro desk and a 2020 New York Times reporting fellow.

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