Biographical/historical: Actor, director, producer, and author Ellis W. Rabb was born June 20, 1930 in Memphis, Tennessee. The only child of Clark Williamson (“Happy”) and Mary Carolyn (Ellis) Rabb, he was graduated from the Southern Arizona School for Boys in Tucson. Rabb attended the University of Arizona and received a B.F.A. from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1953. He also did graduate work at Yale University. Although Rabb did some work for television, his prolific career was primarily in the theater.
In 1952, Rabb made his stage debut as the Dauphin in King Johnat the Antioch Area Theatre, Yellow Springs, Ohio (Shakespeare under-the-Stars), under the direction of Arthur Lithgow. Rabb performed in numerous productions of Shakespeare at the festival (sometimes directing) through 1957, also becoming artistic director that year. He made his New York debut off Broadway in Aristophanes’ The Thesmophoriazusae at Theatre East in 1955. After several off-Broadway appearances, Rabb received a Clarence Derwent Award in 1957 for his portrayal of Alceste in The Misanthrope (Theatre East, 1956). He also performed with the American Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Conn.) in 1958, then toured in the roles of Verges and Don Pedro with ASF’s production of Much Ado About Nothing with Katharine Hepburn that same year.
Rabb’s first known Broadway appearance was as General Koschnadieff in Noel Coward’s Look after Lulu! (with Jack Gilford, Tammy Grimes, and Roddy McDowall) at Henry Miller’s Theatre, 1959. For the Group 20 Players in Wellesley, Mass. (also in 1959), Rabb acted in such works as Man and Superman, Peter Pan, and Oedipus Rex, also directing Much Ado About Nothingand A Streetcar Named Desire. Cast members included Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, Cavada Humphrey, Barry Morse, Diana Muldaur, and Sam Waterston. In December 1959, Rabb returned to Broadway as Reverend Furze in Jolly’s Progress at the Longacre Theatre.
On December 4, 1959, Rabb married actress Rosemary Harris. They divorced in 1967, but remained friends and worked on a number of professional projects together over the next two decades. These included The Merchant of Venice and A Streetcar Named Desire (both directed by Rabb for the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 1973) and The Royal Family (Rabb directed and performed at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 1976, and for television, 1977; Kirk Browning co-directed the Great Performancestelecast). Rabb and Rosemary Harris also appeared together in A Month in the Country(directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos) at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1978.
In 1960, Rabb founded the Association of Producing Artists (APA), a company of actors and producing associates, which for almost ten years, presented classical and modern works in repertory, both on and off Broadway, establishing residencies in and touring parts of the U.S., Canada, and Bermuda. As artistic director, performer, and adaptor, Rabb established a company that came, perhaps, closest to an American national theater. (See Historical Note below for additional information on APA.)
In addition to his work for APA, Rabb directed such productions as Caesar and Cleopatra(starring Carrie Nye) for the American Shakespeare Festival in 1963; he also directed the 1977 Broadway production at the Palace Theatre starring Elizabeth Ashley and Rex Harrison. Other Broadway productions directed by Rabb include The Grass Harpwith Barbara Cook (Martin Beck Theatre, 1971), Veronica’s Room, starring Eileen Heckart (Music Box Theatre, 1973), Who’s Who in Hell, with Peter Ustinov (the play’s author), Beau Bridges, Olympia Dukakis, and Christina Pickles (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 1974), The Royal Family with Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard (replaced by Rabb), Eva Le Gallienne, and Sam Levene (Helen Hayes Theatre, 1975), and You Can’t Take It with You, with Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards (Plymouth Theatre, 1983); Rabb later joined the cast.
Rabb also directed for regional theaters and other companies, including the Old Globe Theatre (San Diego, California), American Conservatory Theatre (San Francisco, California), and the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center. For the latter, Rabb directed productions of Twelfth Nightwith Blythe Danner (1972), Enemies with Nancy Marchand, Philip Bosco, Barbara Cook, and Frances Sternhagen (1972), The Merchant of Venice with Rosemary Harris, Sydney Walker, Philip Bosco, and Christopher Walken (1973), and A Streetcar Named Desire with Rosemary Harris and James Farentino (1973). He also directed Edward IIfor John Houseman’s Acting Company, with Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline (1975).
In 1980, Rabb was named as one of the five-person directorate for the Vivian Beaumont Theater. That same year, he directed the Lincoln Center Theater Company’s opening production, The Philadelphia Story, with Blythe Danner, at the Beaumont.
A true Renaissance man, Rabb directed Dido and Aeneas(1966), Long Hair? A Tribal Dance (1969), and the operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld (1967), for the Performing Arts Foundation of Kansas City (Missouri). For the Dallas Civic Opera, Rabb also directed Orpheus in the Underworld (1968), as well as Aida, with Elena Souliotis, Shirley Verrett, and Cynthia Gregory (1969).
Throughout his career, Rabb continued to perform--from the extensive classic repertoire of the Antioch Shakespeare Festival and the APA--to Kaufman and Hart comedies. A few of his notable roles were “Robert” in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre (Theatre de Lys, 1977), Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner for Circle in the Square (1980), and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnestat San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre (1982) and East Hampton’s John Drew Theater (l983).
Along with performing and directing, Rabb wrote numerous scripts for theater, film, and television (mostly unproduced), as well as other works of fiction. Clap Your Hands, which Rabb wrote with Nicholas Martin, with music by Claibe Richardson, was directed by Rabb at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 1983. Another of Rabb’s works, So Many Women (also titled A Life Without Illusion), a musical written with Claibe Richardson, appears to have had a performance in 1981. The cast included Patti LuPone, Robert LuPone, Allegra Kent, Christopher Walken, Douglass Watson, Mary Louise Wilson, and G. Wood [sic]. Rabb also drew costume and scene sketches for a number of productions, especially for Shakespeare’s plays.
In addition to the 1957 Clarence Derwent Award, Rabb’s numerous awards include a Tony Award in 1976 as director of The Royal Family. He was also nominated for a 1966 Tony Award as Best Director for You Can’t Take It with You. Rabb was also the recipient of an Obie Award in 1962, for his work with APA, the Lola D’Annunzio Award, 1965, an Honorary Doctorate from Southwestern (College) at Memphis, 1977, a New England Theatre Conference Special Award, 1980, and the Amphion Award in 1984. (Several of these awards are represented in the papers.)
Although Rabb continued to work until the 1990s, these productions are not represented in the papers. Having returned to live in his native Memphis in the 1980s, Rabb died there of heart failure at the age of 67, on January 11, 1998.
Biographical/historical: The Association of Producing Artists (APA and later APA-Phoenix) was founded on January 3, 1960 by Ellis Rabb, its artistic director, with a group of actors and producing associates. A draft of a prospectus lists a “Proposal: To build an artistically complete producing unit – dedicated to a backbone structure of classical plays, and the development and encouragement and production of new plays of classical ambition and accomplishment...”
Names on the January 1960 membership roster included Barbara Barrie, Jacqueline Brookes, Clayton Corzatte, Chase Crosley, Keene Curtis, Richard Easton, Pauline Flanagan, Bob (Robert Alan) Gold, George Grizzard, Rosemary Harris, Mariette Hartley, Hurd Hatfield, Cavada Humphrey, Tom Jones, Jerome Kilty, Jack McQuiggan, Nancy Marchand, Stephen Porter, Paul Sparer, Frances Sternhagen, and Sada Thompson.
In the subsequent years of the company’s existence, such theater notables as Brian Bedford, Barry Bostwick, Anne Francine, Will Geer, Tammy Grimes, Uta Hagen, Helen Hayes, Katherine Helmond, John Houseman, Michael Learned, Eva Le Gallienne, Enid Markey, Donald Moffat, Cathleen Nesbitt, Christina Pickles, Alan Schneider, and Nancy Walker (to name but a few), would join its ranks for one or more productions. Jack O’Brien was associate director from approximately 1964 to 1969.
The company’s first professional repertory engagement was in Hamilton, Bermuda (May-June 1960), where they performed Anatol(a musical version of Arthur Schnitzler’s work by Tom Jones and Lilly Lessing), Man and Superman, The Seagull, and The Taming of the Shrew. Among the company members were Rosemary Harris, Richard Easton, Dee Victor, Paul Sparer, David Hooks, Olive Dunbar, Earl Montgomery, Eve Roberts, Keene Curtis, Betty Hellman, Edward Grover, Jack McQuiggan, and Rabb (who directed).
A summer tour that same year included engagements at Bucks County Playhouse (New Hope, Pa.), Theatre-by-the-Sea (Matunuck, R.I.), the John Drew Theater (East Hampton, N.Y.), and the Olney Theatre (Olney, Md.), beginning an annual series of summer bookings that would grow to include other venues, such as the Boston Arts Festival (1961, 1963, and 1964), the Highfield Theatre (Falmouth Mass., 1961), Huntington Hartford Theatre (Los Angeles, 1966 and 1967), the Royal Alexandra Theatre (Toronto, 1966, 1967), and the Stanford Summer Festival of the Arts (Palo Alto, California, 1968).
In September, 1960, the APA kicked off the McCarter Theatre’s (Princeton, N.J.) inaugural season as a producing entity, with a two-month repertory season that included Man and Superman, Anatol, The Lady’s Not for Burning, Right You Are, The Tavern, The Seagull, Scapin, Box and Cox, The Cat and The Moon, and The Importance of Being Earnest. The company returned to the McCarter Theatre in February 1961, presenting five Shakespeare plays. Fall 1961 saw the APA in residence at the Fred Miller Theatre (Milwaukee, Wisc.) where the company performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Seagull, The Tavern, The School for Scandal, and Fashion.
APA’s first New York engagement was at the Folksbiene Playhouse on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in March 1962. Also in 1962, the company began its annual fall residence at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, which lasted for seven seasons, until 1968. In addition to its ever-growing classical repertory, the APA also presented at Ann Arbor the world premieres of We, Comrades Three, adapted from the works of Walt Whitman by Richard Baldridge, in 1962, and Archibald MacLeish’s Herakles(1965). Works such as Jean Giraudoux’s Judith (1964) were also presented at Ann Arbor.
APA began its association with the Phoenix Theatre in New York in 1964 with two engagements presented by the Phoenix at their East 74th Street theater. Productions included Right You Are, The Tavern, Scapin, and Impromptu at Versailles. By the time of its November 23, 1965 successful Broadway debut in Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You at the Lyceum Theatre, APA had become known as APA-Phoenix, signifying the affiliation of the two groups. The alliance ended in 1969.
In August 1967, APA-Phoenix presented the American premiere of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King (under the title The King Dies) at the Huntington Hartford Theatre (Los Angeles,), directed by Rabb, starring Richard Easton, with sets designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian. The company was the only official representative of the U.S. at Montreal’s Expo 67, where it played You Can’t Take It with You, Right You Are, and War and Peace, Oct. 9-14, 1967, in addition to a Royal Alexandra Theatre (Toronto) engagement.
Despite critical acclaim and awards (including a 1961-1962 Vernon Rice Award, and a 1968 Special Tony Award), as well as some institutional, foundation, and government support, the high cost of doing repertory always plagued the APA. Its final production was Private Lives with Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford (Lyceum Theatre, 1969-1970).
Rabb unsuccessfully attempted to reincarnate the company around 1976. The APA, considered one of America’s finest theater companies, was perhaps America’s greatest hope for a national theater.
Content: The Ellis Rabb papers comprise both papers documenting Rabb’s life and career, as well as papers for the repertory company he founded in 1960, the Association of Producing Artists (APA). The papers contain correspondence, clippings, financial papers, contracts, programs, publicity material, scripts and manuscripts, photographs, scrapbooks, blueprints, and designs for productions relating to both Rabb and APA.
The bulk of the papers chronicle the activities of the APA (later APA-Phoenix) from just prior to its inception in 1960 to its final production, Private Lives(1969-1970); also included are financial papers and other materials relating to the company in subsequent years. The papers provide a valuable window into the day-to-day issues that the APA faced while trying to build and maintain a repertory company as a viable entity. There are also papers documenting Rabb’s career in the theater, independent of APA.
APA’s papers are filed chronologically, with correspondence and general administrative papers filed at the beginning of each year. Papers for specific engagements follow. Files for APA’s earliest activities are more comprehensive than those for the company’s final years. Most of the company’s seven fall seasons (1962-1968) with the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor are well-documented.
Scripts for many of APA’s productions, from A Penny for a Song (1962) to The Cocktail Party (1969), are contained in the papers. They are mostly blocking and stage managers’ scripts. However, there are also a few of Rabb’s scripts, most notably War and Peace (1964), which contains numerous handwritten notes and revisions.
Papers in the Ellis Rabb series pertain mostly to his career outside of APA and include a small number of general items such as biographies, clippings, and a sketch. Materials relating to his productions and professional projects range from his early days as an actor and director for the Antioch Shakespeare Festival (Yellow Springs, Ohio) in the 1950s, to his portrayal of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at the John Drew Theater, East Hampton, N.Y. in 1983. Rabb’s work for the Dallas Civic Opera and the Performing Arts Foundation of Kansas City (Missouri) is also documented. Several projects, such as Clap Your Hands (written with Nicholas Martin) (1983), So Many Women (with music by Claibe Richardson), and Unlikely: But Not Impossible, are included in the Productions and Professional Projects series.
Many of Rabb’s unproduced and unpublished plays, screenplays, treatments, works of fiction and non-fiction, poems, and general observations are found in the Writings series. Photographs are mostly related to both APA and Rabb’s professional projects, although there are also some portraits of Rabb and APA members. Additional photos are contained in the Scrapbooks and Oversized series.
The papers contain six scrapbooks that range from 1930 to 1986. Five of these appear to have been compiled by Rabb’s mother; the sixth contains material for the 1952 Antioch Shakespeare Festival (Shakespeare under-the-Stars) and include handwritten commentary by Rabb. The scrapbooks include some unique material (such as correspondence, photos, and ephemera documenting Rabb’s childhood and family), not otherwise found in the papers. Supplemental materials documenting Rabb’s career and APA can also be found in the scrapbooks.
Oversized materials include costume and set sketches (mostly by Rabb), ground plans and blue prints, photos, publicity materials, and a few window cards. Of special interest are Oliver Smith’s blueprints for the opera, Dido and Aeneas, directed by Rabb for the Performing Arts Foundation of Kansas City (Missouri) in 1966.