Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1996

The drugstore soda jerk watched the actors come in from the theater in the park.    They reminded him of his own first experience on a stage: as a deep-voiced troll in a kindergarten play.   The kid grew up, but he never lost sight of that park or that theater.    This month, as Craig Noel turns 75, he celebrates a 53-year association with the Old Globe Theatre, and a lifetime in Balboa Park.

“My playground has always been Balboa Park,” Noel says with a crinkly smile, stroking Bijou, his golden retriever and constant companion.   He grew up right near the Park, and attended Jefferson Grammar School, San Diego High School and San Diego State College (now SDSU).   What was his life like before the Globe? “I didn’t have any,” he deadpans, nestling into his office full of theater memorabilia, awards and photographs.

During the California Pacific International Exposition at the Park (1935-6), he worked as a camera-rental clerk, and whenever he had time off, he caught the 50-minute versions of Shakespeare plays performed at the Old Globe.   When the Exposition closed and the Globe became a community theater, Noel acted in its very first production   (The Distaff Side, 1937). His last performance was in 1975, in Jack O’Brien’s production of Our Town (eerie coincidences: that was ’75, now he’s 75, and the Globe is doing Our Town again this summer   — sans Noel).   He became resident director in 1939, and, some 200+ plays later, he has barely slowed down. His most recent directorial efforts (And a Nightingale Sang, which ran this past May-June) were highly praised by local critics. There was the distinctive signature of Craig Noel — a warm, lush, detailed production highlighting the work of a lesser-known playwright, in this case, the Scottish-born C.P. Taylor.

Noel has always enjoyed bringing new names and styles to San Diego audiences.   In the early 60s, he extended the Globe’s spring seasons into the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, introducing the works of Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, Brecht and Albee. This experiment continued at the Falstaff Tavern (remodeled and renamed, in 1969, the Cassius Carter Centre Stage). In 1974, Noel set into motion the Play Discovery Program and the Globe Educational Tour, and in 1983 he launched Teatro Meta, the Old Globe’s bilingual theater division. Much earlier, in 1949, he had established the world-renowned Shakespeare festivals at the Globe, and ten years later he guided the theater’s transformation to professional status.   (It remains the oldest continuing professional not-for-profit theater in the state).

Noel’s influence has been profoundly felt, not only at the Globe, but also within the local and national theater community. In 1984, to celebrate his 50th anniversary in professional theater, he was honored by governments and regional theaters nationwide. And three years later, a San Diego Mayoral Proclamation declared 1987 “The Year of Craig Noel,” a tribute to his 50-year association with the Old Globe.

And now we come to another milestone. Seventy-five.   Craig Noel waves the matter away.   He is still spritely and impish, and he still has big plans. “I wish we could devise some way to cover the Festival Stage so we could have it year round. It’s our largest revenue-maker, because of its seating capacity (he rattles off the numbers:   637 seats in the outdoor Festival Stage, 420 at the Globe, 245 in the Carter), but we can only use it for half the season.

“But my biggest irritation is the ravaging of the Park.” (He’s still concerned about his playground).   “When I was a boy, 1400 acres was all park.   The hospital, the schools and the freeways have kept nibbling away at it. Now there’s this incredible parking problem…” Noel reaches behind the sofa (next to which Bijou has surreptitiously managed to find and finish my glass of water), and he whips out a full-color artist’s rendering of the Official Craig Noel Balboa Park Solution (my title), an elaborate depiction of what he calls “parcades”, three stories of under-bridge parking with a pedestrian mall. He looks at it wistfully; “It’s a wonderful plan, but who’s gonna pay?”

He always worries about the finances, though he claims “It’s the stuff I don’t like to do.   The fun part of the job is directing.” And Noel has no plans to curtail that. “I think I’ll know when I shouldn’t direct any more,” he says thoughtfully but with confidence. That time, judging by his recent reviews, has obviously not arrived.

What has arrived is this inescapable birthday, and for once, the Executive Producer is allowing the Theatre to make something of it. This year’s major fundraising event, the Globe Gala ’90 (October 13) is billed as “A Birthday Fantasy” — ‘the biggest, grandest birthday celebration ever to hit San Diego.’   “Everything will be larger than life,” bubbles Gala Manager Bridget Cantu Wear (the Globe’s Associate Director of Development). “There’ll be big balloons, blowups, walk-throughs, klieg lights.   Color, confetti, and fog and streamers. Everything to make someone feel like a kid again.”

There’s definitely something of the kid still evident in this shy, unassuming septuagenarian.   Craig Noel pauses and says it’s time to get back to work. Bijou is immediately at his side. They saunter off together, a boy and his dog.

©1996 Patté Productions Inc.