Our First Noel
By Don Braunagel
WHAT’S LEFT TO SAY ABOUT CRAIG NOEL? San Diego theater’s grand old man—officially designated a civic Living Treasure in 1984—turns 90 August 25. There are few honors he hasn’t accumulated. Or praises that haven’t been sung. For his six-plus decades of transforming the Old Globe Theatre from a small local operation to a gleaming star in the international theater pantheon, Noel’s received award after award. The long list includes the Governor’s Award for the Arts, American Conservatory Theatre’s Conservator of American Arts Award and San Diego State University’s Outstanding Alumnus Award. In 1998, this magazine’s 50th anniversary issue named him as one of “50 San Diegans Who’ve Mattered,” and in 2002, the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle named its award—given annually for theater excellence in several categories —after Noel. To mark his birthday, the Globe is unveiling a bronze likeness of him.
He even had his own year: 1987 was proclaimed, by then- Mayor Maureen O’Connor, “The Year of Craig Noel” in honor of the 50th anniversary of his association with the Globe. Yet, for all that, he remains unassuming and modest, joking that he has one of the dullest résumés in all of theater because he’s spent his whole career in one place. “I’m in a rut and don’t know how to get out,” he says, eyes twinkling, during an interview in his Mission Hills home. “I’ve never had to work for a living.” The “one place” part is not quite accurate. He had a sojourn in Hollywood, has guest-directed in other cities and helmed plays for the Army in Tokyo, while he completed his enlistment after the end of World War II and his infantry service in the Philippines. Essentially, however, Noel’s illustrious career and the Globe’s ascension are simultaneous, if not synonymous. As he sums it up, more seriously: “I just loved directing plays, and I’ve been very fortunate having such a long time at one theater.” His conversation, clear and sharp, shows no sign of advanced age. Sometimes he has to grope for a name or a date, but hey, at age 90, the mind’s memory chip gets pretty full. He brightens as he remembers the extensive roster of actors who have gone from his tutelage to prominence in stage, film and TV work. The first, he recalls, was Faye Emerson, who was plucked from the Globe in the 1940s and became one of television’s first stars. Others he mentions include Marion Ross, Robert Hays and the late Victor Buono. Noel says he’s particularly proud of casting Buono because he was a shy, awkward, heavy teenager, and he blossomed into a fine character actor in films.
Ross, who is best known as Mrs. Cunningham on TV’s Happy Days, remains Noel’s dear friend and likes to come here to act in Globe plays under his direction. She remembers one especially. “It was a bad time in my life,” she says. “I was divorced and depressed. Craig called and said, ‘Why don’t you come down and do a play?’ I did, and I commuted back and forth to do the Happy Days pilot . . . It was a real lifesaver.”
Noel was born in Deming, New Mexico, and came to San Diego as a child. A role in a school play sparked his lifelong theatrical fire, which he stoked through Roosevelt Junior High, San Diego High and San Diego State. His professional acting debut came in 1934, in the city’s old Savoy Theatre, followed by roles in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the Old Globe sprang up as a company doing 50- minute versions of Shakespeare plays for Balboa Park’s 1935 California- Pacific International Exposition. When the group reorganized as a community theater, Noel was right there, acting in the initial production in 1937, John Van Druten’s The Distaff Side. He started directing, which he prefers to acting, and in 1939 was named the Globe’s general director. Then, in 1941, Hollywood beckoned, and he signed with 20th Century Fox. He notes, with irony: “Even if I had stayed, I would have been out of a job.” Two weeks after his Thanksgiving departure, Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Navy took over Balboa Park, and the Globe suspended operations.
In the film capital, he worked as a director’s associate, conducting screen tests and coaching dialogue, until he was drafted.
After being discharged, he was approached by a friend. “Delza Martin came up and asked me to come direct a play because they wanted to get the Globe started again. I came back to a much-changed San Diego—the population had nearly tripled —and I could see there was an opportunity here for us to really make a go of the theater. And so I just decided to stay here, and I’ve been here ever since.”
MAJOR ACHIEVEMENTS FOLLOWED. In 1949, Noel established the Globe’s annual Shakespeare festivals. In 1959, the theater did its first professional production, which today makes it the oldest not-for-profit theater in California. Noel oversaw the restructuring of the Falstaff Tavern into the Cassius Carter stage, and the rebuilding of the Old Globe main stage and outdoor theater after fires in 1978 and 1984. In the ’80s, he cofounded, with Jorge Huerta, the Globe’s bilingual in-schools company, Teatro Meta, and established, with the University of San Diego, a master of fine arts program in theater. In 1984, the Globe won the Tony for Outstanding Regional Theater.
In addition, Noel helped found the California Theatre Council and is a former vice president of the California Confederation of the Arts. Over the years, he’s directed more than 225 Globe plays of all types, currently assisting John Rando with Moonlight and Magnolias.
Yet he downplays those accomplishments: “It took me all this many years, when someone with a little more knowhow, a little more pizzazz, a little more backbone, could have done it in seven years.”
Modesty aside, getting what he wanted done wasn’t always a breeze. He had regular clashes with personalities on the Globe’s board over various issues, like establishing a junior theater. And there was early disagreement on a philosophy that today seems a quaint question—whether the board should be raising money. There were also occasional disputes with city officials. “You know San Diego,” Noel says with a laugh, “Mañanaland.”
Asked what he particularly savors, Noel turns serious. “I’m very proud of the success of the Globe. I wanted to change the theatrical climate of San Diego. And now there’s lots of theater here. There are so many theaters doing quality work.” But he talks most about one success, his 1980 choice of Jack O’Brien to follow him as artistic director. “I’m responsible for choosing the best replacement possible. He has cemented our national stature. I was about to be 65, and I told Jack: ‘I want to hire you. I don’t want to have the board set up a search committee and bring in someone I don’t know.’”
The admiration is mutual. In a glowing tribute, O’Brien says of his friend:
“Craig Noel is not reducible to a paragraph, certainly not to a few words. Tomes, volumes don’t remotely become him, because he is, primarily, pure spirit. He doesn’t belong between covers. You have to be there . . . he is utterly contemporary. He was, in the ’50s and in the ’80s. And even today, he remains the most time-elusive personality of my lifetime. He rarely mentions the past. He’s all about today. And tomorrow.
“He’s hilarious. It never seems self-conscious, and at its best, it’s effortless, but he’s just plain hilarious. Wicked, too, which is the most delicious kind of funny. When I first guest-directed at the Globe in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Craig’s introductions to the company, to the festivals, could have stood with the best of Chris Rock or Billy Crystal.”
Noel assents—somewhat: “I write books all the time when I don’t go to sleep at night. I also do stand-up comic roles. I knock myself out. If I could only get a tape recorder, I could be a stand-up comic at 90 years old. My stuff is tremendous. But it’s all up in the bedroom.”
He says that, looking back, he has no regrets. He does, however, display a bit of wistfulness about Hollywood. “Television came along and reduced the number of B pictures being made. That meant I had no chance. I could have been a guest director, a talent scout, a coach, a dialogue director. A better chance was to go and get much more money directing sitcoms for television. I didn’t want to do that.” Anyone who’s seen his deft touch in directing comic material knows that what the world of sitcoms lost, the Globe gained.
Craig Noel’s contributions to the Globe will go on even after he can’t, since he plans to will much of his estate to the organization. “They should get quite a bit”—including his home, “which I managed to buy despite the pittance they paid me,” he says with a grin.
But of course, “they” always knew a “pittance” was sufficient. They, and he, knew he was really doing it for love.