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William Melnitz; Ex-Dean of UCLA Fine Arts College

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Times Staff Writer

William W. Melnitz, who came to the United States in 1939 from his native Germany to help fabled producer-director Max Reinhardt form a Los Angeles repertory theater group that in different forms was to become the resident dramatic company of the Music Center and an academician who was the founding dean of the UCLA College of Fine Arts, has died.

Melnitz, for whom the motion picture unit of the theater arts building at the Westwood campus was named in 1968, was 88 and died Jan. 12 in his Westwood home. He had retired from UCLA in 1967 at age 65 but despite his advanced years immediately assumed a new position at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching for several more years before retiring altogether.

The internationally known theater historian, bibliographer and author had studied theater at the universities of Berlin and Cologne and directed more than 150 professional dramatic efforts before fleeing the Nazi onslaught. Both he and Reinhardt had become directors in chief of some of the most prominent theaters in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, while Reinhardt himself owned a chain of theaters in Germany and Austria.

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In 1947, Melnitz received his doctorate degree from UCLA, four years after receiving his master’s degree there. He had been an assistant in the German department but upon receiving his doctorate joined the embryonic theater arts department as a full professor.

Over the years, Melnitz’s students included such future entertainment figures as comedienne Carol Burnett and actress Bonnie Franklin.

During his tenure as dean (1961-67) of the College of Fine Arts, Melnitz established a university-affiliated professional repertory company, The Theater Group, and later served on the first Board of Directors of the Center Theater Group when his campus dramatic unit moved downtown. Melnitz was credited with bringing John Houseman to UCLA as artistic director and with helping appoint Gordon Davidson to a similar position when the relocated Center Theater Group of Los Angeles was formed in 1967.

Davidson, who continues to serve as artistic director of the Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum, on Wednesday remembered Melnitz as “a remarkable man . . . (who) brought a world of experience to America.”

Also as dean, Melnitz had supervised the design of a major building program in the arts on the campus. That cluster of buildings included Macgowan Hall, named for his colleague, Kenneth Macgowan, with whom Melnitz wrote “The Living Stage,” selected by the American Library Assn. for its Notable Books List. Melnitz and Macgowan, who collaborated on several other books, also introduced a film-making curriculum to the UCLA theater arts department, a program that today is widely heralded throughout the film industry.

In 1982, Melnitz, by then dean emeritus, was given the UCLA Alumni Assn. Award for Distinguished Teaching for which he was nominated by the Academic Senate. In 1986, he was given the UCLA Medal, the highest honor the university can bestow.

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Melnitz, a widower, is survived by a stepson, three grandchildren and five grandchildren.

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