Fabled Group Theatre’s Co-Founder Dies : Cheryl Crawford, 84, Had Produced Top Dramas and Musicals

Times Staff Writer

Cheryl Crawford, a co-founder of the fabled Group Theatre and the Actors Studio, whose last production, “Legends,” could have been named for her, is dead.

The woman who set out in life to become a missionary and instead became producer of some of the most socially significant dramas and resounding musicals of our time was 84. She died Tuesday in Manhattan where she had been hospitalized after a fall last year.

Armed with little experience but great determination, she moved to New York and talked her way into part-time work at the Theater Guild, where she met Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman. There she alternately was actress, secretary and stage manager, having abandoned her teen-age desire to become a missionary. She came to Manhattan in 1925 after appearing as Lady Macbeth in an amateur production in her native Ohio when she was only 15.

That single appearance sparked an interest in drama that lasted until her death. She told the Associated Press earlier this year that she still “read about four scripts a week.”


The last of those that caught her eye was “Legends,” which is enjoying a successful national tour with Mary Martin and Carol Channing, and “So Long on Lonely Street,” which appeared briefly on Broadway last season.

With Strasberg and Clurman, she formed the Group Theater in the 1930s, a dramatic company fashioned after Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater. The three presented such playwrights as Clifford Odets, Irwin Shaw and William Saroyan with casts that included Franchot Tone, Frances Farmer, Lee J. Cobb, Stella and Luther Adler and John Garfield.

Among the plays were “Waiting for Lefty,” “Men in White,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, “Golden Boy” and “Awake and Sing!”

Miss Crawford, who never married, also produced many of Tennessee Williams plays including “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “The Rose Tattoo,” which won her a Tony Award in 1951, and “Camino Real.”


She left the Group Theater in 1937 to become an independent producer and used Strasberg as her director for “All the Living.” In 1939 she staged “Family Portrait” with Judith Anderson.

Later she moved to the Maplewood Theater in New Jersey, one of the most successful suburban stock companies in the nation, where Paul Robeson, Luise Rainer and Ingrid Bergman often appeared.

Her first big commercial success came in 1942 when she restaged “Porgy and Bess” and sent it on a widely praised national tour. That enabled her to co-found with Eva Le Gallienne and Margaret Webster the American Repertory Theater, where she produced “Henry VIII,” “Androcles and the Lion,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “What Every Woman Knows.”

The repertory group ceased to exist in 1948 but Miss Crawford had already left to found the Actors Studio with Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis and Strasberg.

Although her successes, including the highly popular “Brigadoon,” “One Touch of Venus” and “Paint Your Wagon,” were legion, she was not infallible, turning down opportunities to produce “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “West Side Story” and “Death of a Salesman.”