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Dallas Theater Mainstay Jac Alder Has Died 47

jacMarty van Kleeck, managing director of Theatre Three, said Jac Alder died early this afternoon at Baylor Hospital. The cause was respiratory failure, although Alder had long suffered from chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). He had been taken to the hospital a month ago with breathing difficulty but had returned home to his Uptown-area apartment. Van Kleeck said it was a shock when he went back to Baylor two days ago because he seemed to be doing so well.

Jac Alder was the ‘happy warrior’ of North Texas theater. He always had something of a chip on his shoulder, running the perennially “second” theater in town after the Dallas Theater Center (which opened in 1960 — a year before Theatre Three). He frequently and proudly reminded people that, until 2003, Theatre Three was the only leading arts organization in the area that owned its facility — unlike the Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Symphony, Dallas Opera, etc. — all of which receive city support and a city-owned building.

But Alder was often the publicly astute, politically outspoken ‘theater leader’ when it came to battles over arts funding — or other social issues including racial equality and gay rights. Theater Three was open to artists of color from the start — long before many Dallas institutions were. It was Alder and Theatre Three who pioneered bringing socially conscious dramas to Dallas by such writers as Athol Fugard.

It was Norma Young’s idea to establish the theater in 1961, having received a small inheritance from a great-aunt. And she convinced three others, Esther Ragland, Robert Dracup — and Alder, who would soon marry Young. The theater started a seven-show season in the Sheraton Dallas Hotel ballroom. Young was inspired by Margo Jones, Dallas’ original theater patron saint, who championed “theater-in-the-round” when she created Theater ’47, one of the original, residential theater companies in the United States. More than 50 years after it started, Theater Three remains a theater-in-the-round in its 242-seat space in the Quadrangle.

t3 expandedAlder was born in Yukon, Oklahoma — or, as he often joked, “Far North Dallas.” He studied to be an architect at the University of Oklahoma, but it was only while he was serving in the U.S. Army overseas and was put in charge of a touring theater troupe that he caught the theater bug. He often used his architectural skills, though, in later years when he designed sets for the theater and was also intensely involved in the re-design, upgrade and expansion of the theater’s space in the Quadrangle.

In fact, Alder did just about everything at the theater: designed, directed, produced, managed and, of course, acted (his last performance was probably in Freud’s Last Session in 2012 — above). Frankly, Alder was a bit of a ham — he enjoyed the attention, the laughter. But that hardly meant he hogged the spotlight; he delighted in other artists’ work, too — and could frequently be heard in the audience, cackling happily at one of his actor’s performances.

After its first season, Theatre Three moved into a remodeled car-seat factory on Main Street in Deep Ellum (above). By 1969, it had outgrown that facility as well — and eventually leased space in what was a brand-new development, the Quadrangle in what was then known as the State-Thomas area (named for two streets there). It’s now called Uptown.

Over the years, Alder, Young and their theater inspired a number of notable talents — including TV star Morgan Fairchild and, in particular, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Hughes, whose musical Hands on a Hard Body, the theater staged last year.

In 1979, when Hughes was 14, Alder cast him as a young boy in Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box. He sang “Goodnight Irene” onstage. After that, he said in a 2014 interview, “I did almost anything I could to stay there.”
“I spent the bulk of my childhood in these halls,” Hughes said, “or in the Teen/Children’s Theater Program, as it was called, at the Dallas Theater Center. And those two institutions enabled me, as a nervous young gay kid in Texas, to survive childhood.”
As the ‘second theater’ in town, Theatre Three didn’t have the size, budget or the facilities to stage truly major shows — although the company occasionally did attempt Broadway musicals and Shakespeare plays. Instead, with characteristic pluck, Alder used the theater’s small size and in-the-round intimacy to its advantage. If he couldn’t do major Shakespearean works, it would leave those to the Theater Center and the Dallas Shakespeare Festival, as it was then known — and would champion Moliere instead. If he couldn’t stage Rodgers and Hammerstein, he would specialize in Stephen Sondheim.
Alder is survived by two brothers and two sisters. Van Kleeck said the theater company was in the first stages of planning a celebration of Alder’s life and work.