Ted Schmitt; Play Producer in 2nd Career


Ted Schmitt, the personable producer at two of the city's more significant small theaters, who several years ago exchanged a successful business career for a scaled-down life style so he could produce small plays on even smaller budgets, died Thursday of the complications of AIDS.

The mover and shaker behind the tiny Cast and Cast-at-the-Circle theaters in Hollywood was 50 when he died at the Medical Center of North Hollywood. He had been diagnosed as HIV positive several months ago and a benefit was staged for him in March which reunited The War Babies, one of the many improvisational groups he had encouraged to success over the years.

Born Ralph Theodore Schmitt, he began life in a traditional style that foreshadowed success in the business world. He was president of his fraternity at USC, married his college sweetheart, spent four years in the Navy and earned a master's degree in business while studying at night.

By 1965, he was a happily married, successful corporate executive, dabbling in amateur theatrics in his spare time. But in 1976, after his picture-book marriage began to unravel, he decided to acknowledge long-suppressed feelings and go public with his homosexuality and what he called his "hearing the muses." He moved to Hollywood and invested stock profits, his share of the sale of the family's comfortable home near Whittier College and a small inheritance and took over the lease at the two small theaters on El Centro Avenue.

Over the years Schmitt, who managed child support for his three children on an annual income near $6,000 while he lived in a modest apartment and drove a 1965 Mustang, turned the two theaters into repositories of the adventurous, producing 12 months of theater on a budget of only $150,000.

His theaters, acknowledged as three or four of the most successful and innovative in Los Angeles, helped produce more than 250 shows from the 1,000 scripts sent him each year.

He worked in the shadow of a giant film studio down the street (Paramount) while dumping trash cans, arranging ticket sales and helping paint sets for the world premieres of dozens of new works by untried playwrights.

"I lost my financial security," he said in a lengthy 1988 interview with The Times, "but I regained my soul."

He also labored within the confines but in the spirit of Equity Waiver theater, small playhouses with 99 seats or fewer which permit actors to perform for less than union scale. In exchange, he was allowed to venture far from works that would turn a profit.

More than 400 playwrights were presented during his tenure, including 38 musicals.

He lived in a world of the uncomfortably understated, holding cast meetings in the cramped hallways of his theaters where most of the office furniture resembled Goodwill donations.

Schmitt estimated he spent more than a third of his time cleaning bathrooms and maintaining his aging buildings while suggesting to harried property managers where they could get the best buy on artificial plants.

He wheedled loans for special productions and received an occasional grant (one even came from the New York-based Dramatists Guild).

Despite his avowed homosexuality, he didn't stage "gay" theater for its own sake but did concentrate on the avant-garde.

"I don't think you can produce theater in the United States without exploring a lot of alternatives these days," he said in 1988. "It's one of the few places that it's safe to explore very controversial . . . life styles . . . and subject matter because television and film self-censor so strongly."

In addition to his two daughters and a son, he is survived by a sister.

SCHMITT REMEMBERED--A beacon of vitality has left the theater scene. F21.

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