Donald R. Seawell
File photo by Glory Weisberg
Donald R. SeawellFile photo by Glory Weisberg
Donald R. Seawell, founder and chairman emeritus of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, died Sept. 30. He was 103.
“Donald Seawell was a visionary whose dreams for the City of Denver, the state of Colorado and indeed the world will outlive generations to come,” said DCPA President & CEO Scott Shiller. “Mr. Seawell’s reputation as an industry leader inspired the creation of countless other performing arts centers throughout the country. Denver is the No. 1 arts city in the country because of the innovative path Mr. Seawell set us on 37 years ago. We will continue to honor his legacy in all we do.”
A native of North Carolina and graduate of the University of North Carolina, Seawell studied law and came to Washington, D.C., as an early staff member of the Securities and Exchange Commission. At the outbreak of World War II, he went to the War Department and the Department of Justice, on loan from the SEC, serving as director of the Anti-Subversion Division of the Justice Department and executive secretary of the Combined American and British Intelligence Organizations.
In 1943, he entered the armed services and served on the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force ultimately reporting to Gen. Eisenhower. As part of SHAEF, he participated in planning for D-Day, in which he worked with the British on diversionary tactics that led the Germans to believe the invasion would occur at Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. After V-E day, he transferred to the Judge Advocate General’s Department to argue veterans’ reemployment rights before the United States Supreme Court. He then entered the private practice of law in New York.
While he was head of his firm’s corporate and international divisions, his work as attorney became increasingly involved with the theatre. His theatrical clientele began with Ruth Draper, growing to include Noel Coward, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Tallulah Bankhead, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, among others.
He became involved with theatrical presentation, on Broadway and in London, producing or co-producing A Thurber Carnival, Noel Coward’s Sail Away, The Affair, The Beast in Me, Slow Dance on the Killing Ground and dozens more Lunt/Fontanne hits and other shows in addition to television and motion picture productions.
He was first to bring the Royal Shakespeare Company to America. In 1962, he directed and presented the RSC production of The Hollow Crown on Broadway and on tour and, in 1964, to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th Anniversary, he imported the RSC’s King Lear and The Comedy of Errors, which opened the New York State Theatre.
“Donald Seawell is one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s greatest friends,” said Artistic Director Gregory Doran, “serving as a governor since 1980, and as an honorary governor since 2001. He was the first to bring the RSC in its current form to the USA, directing and presenting our production of The Hollow Crown on Broadway and on tour in 1962. Just over 50 years ago, he helped mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, taking our productions of King Lear and The Comedy of Errors to the New York State Theatre. As chairman of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, he collaborated with us to stage a landmark production of Tantalus, John Barton’s 10 play retelling of the Greek Epic Cycle, which opened in Denver in 2000 and toured the UK, including the Barbican Theatre, to great acclaim. This heroic project, which brought together international artists from the U.S., UK, Japan, Greece and Ireland, reflects the scale of Donald’s vision and his extraordinary passion for theatre and the RSC.”
Helen G. Bonfils, principal owner of The Denver Post, was his partner in many Broadway shows and other ventures. She asked him to become the attorney both for her and The Denver Post, representing her interests in a decade-long fight for control of the paper. In 1966, Seawell became president and CEO of The Post. It was not long before he became chairman and publisher of The Post and a full-time resident of Denver.
Finding himself at the crossroads of 14th and Curtis streets in downtown Denver one day, looking at the old Auditorium Theatre (built in 1908) and the surrounding four blocks, Seawell had an idea for a performing arts center that could utilize some of the existing buildings. Before the day was out, he had secured the approval of his fellow trustees of the Helen G. Bonfils Foundation to form the not-for-profit Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
In its inception, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts was two-fold: the four-block, 12-acre site that today is managed by the City of Denver. Now called the Denver Performing Arts Complex, it is home to 10 performance venues that feature ballet, symphony, opera, theatre and musicals. Secondly, Seawell created the DCPA to offer locally-produced theatre and Broadway tours to Denver audiences. While no longer managing the majority of downtown’s Arts Complex, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts has become the largest nonprofit theatre organization in the nation, presenting theatre, cabaret, musicals and innovative, multimedia plays.
Ground was broken in December 1974. By 1978 the 2,634-seat Boettcher Concert Hall – the nation’s first in-the-round concert hall – was completed, along with an eight-story, 1,700-space parking garage. By 1979 the Auditorium Theatre had been renovated, two cabaret spaces and four more theatres had been added: The Stage, Space, Source (now Jones) and Ricketson – comprising the Helen G. Bonfils Theatre Complex contained within the larger complex. The 2,830-seat Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre was completed in 1991 and the Grand Ballroom atop The Space Theatre was added in 1998.
In 1982, he brought the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain to Denver to participate in a Festival of World Theatre sponsored by the DCPA. He sat on the boards of the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Symphony Orchestra and Central City Opera, was president of the Denver Opera Foundation and helped create the Mayor’s Commission on the Arts (now Denver’s Office of Cultural Affairs).
Seawell was an honorary governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company and was an early and vigorous proponent for the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, testifying before Congress on behalf of funding for the NEA and for its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and serving on the NEA’s theatre panel. As chairman and CEO of the American National Theatre and Academy, he played a role in creating the American National Theatre in Washington, D.C., and, as a member of New York’s Broadway Alliance, contributed to launching its first performance.
While chairman of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, he oversaw such landmark events as the pre-Broadway debut of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the national tour launches of Disney’s The Lion King and Sunset Boulevard among others, and the world premiere productions of Quilters, The Laramie Project and the landmark 10-part epic production of Tantalus. A defining moment in his career was receiving the 1998 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre on behalf of his beloved DCPA Theatre Company.
In 2002, Seawell received the Honorary Award of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) from England’s Queen Elizabeth. In 2004, he again was recognized for his contributions to the City of Denver with a Mayor’s Award, and in 2006 he was honored with induction into Broadway’s Theater Hall of Fame.
Seawell stepped down as full time chairman of the DCPA in 2007 to be succeeded by Daniel L. Ritchie. He continued to actively serve as chairman emeritus of the Helen G. Bonfils Foundation, the DCPA and ANTA until his death.
Seawell married actor Eugenia Rawls in 1941. She passed away in 2000. He is survived by their children, Brockman Seawell of New York City and Brook Ashley of Santa Barbara, Calif., a granddaughter Brett Wilbur of Carmel, Calif., and two great-grandchildren.
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