Old Globe’s Craig Noel, 94, dies of natural causes

San Diego’s grand old man of the theater has died.

Craig Noel, 94, a founding director of the Old Globe, where he helped

send nine Tony Award-winning shows to Broadway, died of natural causes Saturday night at his Mission Hills home, the theater announced.

“I had a vision,” Noel said in a 2005 interview. “I wanted to make

San Diego a theater town.”

And he did, directing more than 200 works and producing about 270 shows himself.

The New Mexico native, who came to San Diego as a child, joined the cast of John Van Druten’s “The Distaff Side” at the Old Globe in 1937, and ended up putting in 70 years with the theater, becoming artistic director in 1949.

The Old Globe is now one the nation’s 10 biggest regional theaters.

In 2007, Noel was given the National Medal of the Arts for his

“decades of leadership as a pillar of the American theater” by then-President George W. Bush. The medal is the government’s highest honor for artists and arts patrons.

A memorial service at the theater is pending.

The Old Globe’s chief executive, Louis Spisto, called Noel “a great San Diegan who made theater central to the lives of this community, and in many ways the nation, by being one of the leaders of the regional theater movement in the past century.”

Shows sent to Broadway by the Globe have won nine Tony Awards and

received nearly 60 nominations. The theater also won the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1984.

Noel played an instrumental role in the careers of three-time Tony award winner Jack O’Brien, who Noel hired as a artistic director in 1981. Actors who Noel worked with and went on to wider fame include Kelsey Grammer, Marion Ross and David Ogden Stiers.

Darko Tresnjak, the former resident artistic director of the Globe, told The Union-Tribune that Noel had a unique, singular career in American theater.”

“A lifetime of devotion to a single theater -- it’s astonishing to have that kind of career. It just doesn’t happen.

“What I’ll miss the most is his biting wit. I’ll miss the nicotine and

martinis and the really incredible sense of irony and biting wit, in an age that has so little of it”

As a director, one of Noel’s signature productions was “Mister Roberts,” first staged in 1953.

Noel oversaw the Globe grow from a temporary stage in Balboa Park to a

three-theater complex. He led fundraising drives to rebuild two theaters - first the Old Globe and later the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre - after fires in 1978 and 1984.

Noel also established the masters of fine arts in acting program with

the University of San Diego in 1987, and Teatro Meta in 1983, a Latin theater project that evolved into a bilingual playwriting program serving thousands of San Diego youths.

In 1949, he started the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival, which

has been credited with the rebirth of American interest in Shakespeare.

Drafted during World War II, he served in the Army’s 37th Infantry

Division in the Philippines. After Japan’s surrender, Noel was assigned to Special Services in Tokyo, where he ran the Ernie Pyle Theatre, provider of stage shows to the occupational troops. He was discharged in 1946.

When he returned to civilian life he put in a stint as a junior director at 20th Century Fox alongside Orson Welles.

Noel’s many other awards include the California Governor’s Award for the Arts, an honorary doctorate from USD and the City of San Diego’s Living Treasure Award.