Judith Stark, 96; Former Dancer Began Arts Foundation, Experimental Theater

Times Staff Writer

Judith Thomas Stark, a performing arts philanthropist who operated the innovative nonprofit Theater Vanguard in West Hollywood in the 1970s, has died. She was 96.

Stark died Dec. 1 of a stroke at her Bel-Air home, according to her son, Christopher Thomas.

A teacher and dancer in her youth, Stark began turning her lifelong love of the arts into direct help for artists four decades ago.


In 1968, after her divorce from William Thomas, she established the Judith S. Thomas Foundation with her profits from the sale of the James B. Lansing Sound Co., maker of JBL speakers. Stark had helped Thomas develop the company.

Frustrated with donating money to established arts groups, she decided that her foundation would give grants directly to needy artists.

“I was just fed up with red tape,” she told The Times in 1974. “So much usually goes into administration that what seeps out to the artist is such a small percentage. I wanted to give my money directly with no strings attached.”

Stark, who married Milton R. Stark in 1970, also began holding biweekly sessions in their home, inviting new artists, composers and filmmakers to present their projects.

Several years later, she and her husband bought the Stage Society Theatre at 9014 Melrose Ave. Supported by her foundation, the venue was renovated and reopened in February 1973 as the nonprofit Theater Vanguard.

Modern dancers, contemporary composers and experimental filmmakers were invited to perform -- and were paid with 100% of the box office receipts. The theater presented mime festivals, electronic music festivals, film series, live theater and several one-person shows.


“We are not doing this for anything but the fun of helping the arts. It is our contribution to the cultural life,” Stark, who served as president, told The Times. “We really wanted to prove that this theater was needed. We knew that there were the artists and that there were audiences out there. We just had to prove that they could be brought together.”

In late 1973, Stark’s foundation and her theater received the Margaret Harford Award, named for The Times’ late theater critic. The award, given by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, was granted for “supportive contribution to the experimental performing arts in Southern California.”

Former Times theater writer Sylvie Drake, in reporting the selection, noted that the Starks had initially “promised to provide the young and/or noncommercial artist with a place to air his work.”

“They’ve more than lived up to it,” Drake said. “In one year, the Vanguard has made itself indispensable.”

Some financial help eventually came from the California Arts Council and the Los Angeles County Music and Performing Arts Commission. But it wasn’t enough, and Stark’s foundation could not cover rising operating costs for more than five years.

The Vanguard announced in September 1978, shortly after passage of Proposition 13 curbed property tax revenue, that it would close for lack of funds.


“We tried our best,” Stark told The Times in 1978. “I hope good will come out of it, and I plan to continue to work to help arts on a more realistic level.”

An active volunteer as well as philanthropist, Stark was one of the original founders of the Los Angeles County Music Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art and was one of the first to endorse establishment of the Los Angeles Opera.

She served on the boards of the Bella Lewitzky Dance Foundation, the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC, the Craft and Folk Art Museum and CalArts, where she supported an artists-in-residence program.

Stark also supported the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the UCLA Hammer Museum and was active in the Pasadena Museum of Art, the predecessor of the Norton Simon Museum of Art.

At UCLA, where she received her teaching degree in 1931, she was a founding member of its Design for Sharing, which introduces children to the arts and aids senior citizens, and served on the board of the Royce Center Circle.

During the 1984 Olympics, Stark was head of hospitality for dancers participating in the Olympic Arts Festival.


She also worked for several years in the Los Angeles Area Dance Alliance’s annual Dance Kaleidoscope.

Born Judith Shallit on Nov. 11, 1909, in Winnipeg, Canada, she moved to Los Angeles with her family at the age of 8.

After graduating from UCLA, she taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Until a heart murmur forced her to stop, she also danced with the Virginia Hall Johnson Dance Company, where she met Lewitsky.

Stark is survived by her husband of 35 years, Milton, and two sons from her first marriage, Christopher and Nicholas Thomas.

Services will be private. Memorial donations may be made to the Judith and Milton R. Stark Scholarships in the Arts and Humanities at UCLA. Information is available at at (310) 825-8512.