AN APPRECIATION : Ted Schmitt: Theater in L.A. Loses a Friend

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ted Schmitt was a great sidewalk schmoozer.

The lobby at Schmitt's Cast Theatre was tiny. So Schmitt, who died Thursday from AIDS-related complications, would preside over the sidewalk on opening nights, greeting theatergoers, introducing playwrights to patrons, exchanging information and opinions about what was happening in other theaters around town, talking about life and Hollywood and raising children and, to reporters, constantly pressing for more coverage of Los Angeles theater.

People would park their cars on side streets near the Cast, in one of the town's seedier neighborhoods, and warily look over their shoulder as they walked to the theater. But at the first glimpse of Schmitt, his tall frame, red hair and florid face looming over most of the crowd, fear would dissipate. He was a beacon of vitality.

Schmitt seemed so fearless. He had radically changed course in the mid-stream of his life. A former executive at VSI Corp. and a three-piece suit member of the Chamber of Commerce, he turned his back on all that. Having made such a great leap, it appeared that nothing could get him down for long.

His theater, his car, his belongings might have looked shabby, especially when compared with the giant movie studio just down the block, where a different breed of producer routinely packages multimillion dollar deals for the silver screen, separated from the forlorn neighborhood by high walls and security guards. But Schmitt gave every indication of thriving on being the scrappy underdog, the producer who created the conditions for human-scaled art, in the middle of the Hollywood monster.

And his efforts were remarkably successful. The Cast became one of the three or four busiest and most enterprising theaters, of any size, in Los Angeles. It remains a theater that's difficult to ignore. Even though Schmitt and his staff had little to do with some of the rental productions that came into the Cast, any show that played there automatically achieved a level of interest and credibility that could be matched at very few of the other theaters in town--because everyone knew that Ted Schmitt would be there on that sidewalk, watching over his theater and the people who worked there.

One of the first signs that something was amiss was at the opening of "Night Owls" last year. Schmitt was missing from his post--and this was the second play of an important writer, Suzanne Lummis, whose work Schmitt had introduced. Soon after that came the news of his illness, with those frightening letters--HIV--attached to the diagnosis.

During the last months, Schmitt, who was 50, hung in there. Though his voice often sounded wracked with pain, he still called reporters with news tips, still kept up with what was going on around town by reading, if not by being there.

But that sidewalk just won't be the same without him.

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