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BWW News: Theatre Visionary Zelda Fichandler Fondly Remembered by Friends and Family at Heartwarming Memorial Service

Friends, colleagues, and fans gathered this past week at Arena Stage to remember a theatre visionary in the house that bears her name. Zelda Fichandler wasn't only a theatre pioneer; she co-started a theatre revolution in this country. Arena Stage began in 1950 under Zelda and her husband Tom's leadership. It was the first theatre in the country to employ a resident company of actors. Her resident company included such legends as Robert Prosky, Frances Sternhagen, Ned Beatty, and many others including local favorite Barbara Rappaport. It effectively started the regional theatre movement; today there are regional theatres all over the country due largely in part to Zelda's theatrical vision.

The Great White Hope was the first production to come out of this movement. The play debuted at Arena Stage in 1968 and promptly went on to Broadway to win the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. First one out of the box and Zelda had a bunch of awards already.

Former Arena Stage Artistic Director Doug Wager. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Last week, at the celebration of her life, she was remembered as a passionate individual who was at it 24/7. Her employees would do pretty much anything she requested as Arena Stage's former Artistic Director Doug Wager recalled in a funny story abouta boat ride Zelda and a few others took. . The boat got stuck on something out in the water because there was too much weight. Zelda's sunhat blew off her head into the water. Without even saying anything, Zelda had a look on her face that Doug knew so well. He dove in to retrieve the hat. By doing this, it freed up the extra weight and the boat took off without him. Only for Zelda.

Laura Penn, the Executive Director of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SSDC), also offered a remembrance. SSDC offers a yearly award, in Zelda's name, to people committed to enriching the regional theatre scene. That's very fitting for a woman who did so much for that facet of theatre, wouldn't you say?

Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

I cannot forget Molly Smith talking about how Zelda inspired her to start her own theatre in Alaska called Perseverance Theatre and the influence she had on her both as a person and as an Artistic Director.

The most touching remembrances, however, came from Zelda's grandchildren and son. The grandchildren remembered her as a doting grandmother who wanted to know everything about what was going on in their lives.

Members of the cast of Arena Stage's Carousel perform "Make Our Garden Grow." Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The memorial also featured a musical performance of "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide. Performed by members of the upcoming Arena Stage production of Carousel, and guest artists such as Donna Migliaccio, Shayna Blass, and Stephen Schmidt, summed up what the afternoon was really about. Richard Wilbur's lyric is as follows:

"We'll build our house and chop our wood. And make our garden grow."

That captures everything Zelda Fichandler stood for. She had an idea of what theatre could and should be. For 40 years, she helmed Arena Stage and gave it international status. If you knew Zelda as a student, actor, writer, or subscriber, you knew how passionate she was about what she did. Those of us who are now benefiting from what Zelda did for the theatre starting in 1950 owe her the highest debt of gratitude.Her memorial service reflected the appreciation from all that worked with and knew her - a fitting tribute for a great lady of the theatre to be sure.

Zelda Fichlander

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