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Rochester’s theater community remembers Herb Katz

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Herb Katz, a local stage legend who was the first artistic director of the CenterStage at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester, died March 24 at the age of 82.

The cause of his death was cancer, although he had also battled Parkinson’s disease and depression, according to friends and family.

His death touched off tribute after tribute on social media from actors, directors, and educators of all ages, many of whom had the same things to say about Katz: He was inimitable. Funny. Brilliant. One-of-a-kind. A force. An absolute truth-teller. An advocate for artists. A giver of opportunities. A dear friend.

To Ralph Meranto, the current JCC CenterStage artistic director, Katz was a mentor, collaborator, and, they often joked, somewhat of a father figure.

“I met Herb in 1987, when I played Seymour opposite his Mr. Mushnik in ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ and we had that duet ‘Mushnik and Son,’” Meranto said. “We would always laugh about the fact that I eventually ‘took over the family business’ as director of CenterStage.”

Katz burst onto the local theater scene in 1977, when a group of volunteers at the JCC launched a nationwide search for an arts director-in-residence to build a program. They selected Katz, who was living in Philadelphia at the time and had an array of theater experience that included acting, teaching, and directing. He had performed in commercials, on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and with the United States Army’s entertainment special services branch.

In his 28 year-tenure with JCC CenterStage, Katz directed productions and launched initiatives ranging from SummerStage — an audition-only, professional musical experience for high school and college students — to a Readers Theatre Group. He was also a pioneer in the area of non-traditional, color-conscious casting (then commonly called “color-blind”) and held workshops on the subject.

Katz was involved with the Alliance for Jewish Theatre and was able to bring to Rochester big names such as Betty Comden (of Comden and Green, who wrote the screenplays and libretti for many classic musicals).

Meranto took over the role of artistic director at JCC CenterStage in 2005. He described the handoff as seamless. There was no interview, since, as Meranto put it, Katz had groomed him for the role.

Everything show Meranto did from 2005 until roughly 2017, Meranto recalls, Katz was on the phone or in the audience supporting. In fact, Mernato said, Katz is responsible for much of the success of the current theater scene in Rochester.

“He tried to look at the theater community as just that — a community — and not separate, competing entities,” Meranto said. “He performed everywhere. He’d say it was easier because he didn’t have to focus on being a producer as well. There were no ticket sales or light cues to worry about, his job was just to be an actor on the stage.”

Katz was born in Philadelphia on June 11, 1937, to his late parents, his mother, Hanna, and his father, Joseph, an attorney. He had a brother named Seymour, who survives him.

Katz graduated with a degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania before earning a masters in fine arts in directing from Boston University.

In Rochester, his work with other theaters led him to one of the greatest friendships of his life in Jack Haldoupis, who was then the artistic director of Blackfriars Theatre (or, as Katz liked to call it, “The House That Jack Built”). The two became nearly inseparable, with Katz performing in Blackfriars productions and the two of them seeing theater around town together.

“We knew each other professionally for a few years, but you don’t really know somebody until you work on a project with them,” Haldoupis said. “We became very close friends almost immediately. We were just on the same page. I could glance at him and raise an eyebrow and he'd know what I was thinking.”

Opinionated critic though he was, Katz was often on stage or in the audience at theaters around town every weekend.

“Every time a new theatre company popped up, he’d say, ‘If you can get an audience, you deserve to exist,’” Haldoupis said.

Katz was also a big proponent of local actors, and had a large network of actors and directors who went on to professional careers after working with him.

“He could sense truth in acting, and if he liked your work he’d single you out — even if he didn’t know you — and usually write you a note. He had horrible handwriting. People would get the notes and say, ‘What does this mean?’” Haldoupis said. “He’d be too honest and fight with people, too, get real passionate and say he’d never work with them again. Of course, a month later, the person would be back in the theater.”

Katz was in his 50s when he met his wife, June, a school teacher and principal with a deep love of theater. They were married for 30 years. “I don’t think there would have been a marriage if I didn’t like theater as much as he did,” she said.

Together, the couple and a set of tight-knit, theater-loving friends that included Haldoupis attended shows together in and out of town. June said she and her husband visited New York City twice a year to catch a string of new plays.

“We saw as many plays as we could get into a week,” she said. “We’d go mornings, afternoons, and evenings.”

When Haldoupis retired from Blackfriars and current Artistic Director Danny Hoskins took over in 2015, Katz and June continued to support the theater and donated the large neon sign that adorns its Main Street building.

Katz was open about his ongoing battle with depression, and created the autobiographical, one-man show “Depression: The Musical” in 2002 with writer Paula Marchese and composer-lyricist Patty Chadwick (Meranto played Katz). Katz also co-founded, with Ruth Cowing, The Reel Mind Film Series, which highlights mental health issues depicted in documentaries and animated films.

When Katz’s 80th birthday coincided with JCC CenterStage’s 40th anniversary in 2017, Meranto threw a special event with performers from past and present, some of whom delivered an in-person tribute to Katz and the legacy he brought to Rochester theater.

“He was a legend, a larger-than-life presence in this community, commanding on a stage,” Meranto says. “When he walked into a room, you knew.”