Robert Breen; Initiated Cultural Exchanges


Robert Breen, who initiated U.S.-Soviet cultural exchanges by taking “Porgy and Bess” to the Soviet Union and pioneered federal financing for theater arts, has died of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 80.

Breen, who lived in Manhattan, died Saturday at Brooklyn Veterans Hospital.

His revival of the Broadway musical “Porgy and Bess,” which he directed and co-produced, toured internationally from 1952-56 through 89 cities in 29 countries.


Most significant were the production’s appearances in the Soviet Union, which were considered to be the first cultural exchange across the Iron Curtain after World War II.

When Breen brought the show to Los Angeles in 1954, he rejected requests that he tone down “sexy and lewd” scenes. The production was staged in the old Philharmonic Auditorium owned by the Temple Baptist Church.

“After all,” Breen said at the time, “this show has played without protest for 18 years. The U.S. State Department sponsored our European tour as a cultural venture.

“Boston and Philadelphia didn’t object,” he added, “and it’s ironical that our first criticism should come from Hollywood, of all places.”

Breen suffered additional angst from Hollywood when Samuel Goldwyn Productions made the movie version of “Porgy and Bess” without him.

Claiming he had been promised but never given joint artistic control as co-producer, Breen abandoned the film set in August, 1957, and sued Goldwyn and artists’ agent Irving Lazar for $5.7 million for alleged civil fraud.

After a two-month trial in 1963, including testimony by the then-80-year-old Goldwyn and film stars James Stewart and Irene Dunne, a jury denied Breen’s claims.

Breen began his long campaign for federal funding for theater in 1935 when he created Federal Theatre No. 1 in Chicago using Works Progress Administration money.

Concerned about artistic and bureaucratic constraints on a government-controlled theater, he helped devise plans for the National Theater Foundation patterned after the European system of public support for the arts without government control.

The foundation laid the groundwork for Congress to create the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966.

In 1946, Breen set up the American National Theatre and Academy, based on his foundation plan, and served as its executive director until 1951. Persuading theater unions to ease restrictions so that major players could work outside Broadway, he was able to present actors like Charles Laughton and John Garfield at minimal cost.

Breen’s vision for broad-based national theater encouraged development of regional theaters throughout the country.

Also an actor, Breen accepted an invitation by the Danish government in 1949 to produce and play the title role in “Hamlet” in Denmark, earning a Danish medal for his interpretation.

Born Dec. 26, 1909, in Hibbing, Minn., Breen studied at the University of Iowa and began his career in theater by setting up a theater program at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Breen is survived by his wife and collaborator, Wilva Davis Breen; twin step-sons, William D. Martin of Belen, N.M., and Paul E. Martin of New York City, and three grandchildren.