As a revered director-choreographer and the patriarch of San Diego’s first family of the stage, Don Ward helped guide and inspire legions of theater artists over the years.
Ward, whose more than 60-year career is intertwined with the history and fortunes of San Diego theater, died at his Cardiff home Tuesday. He was 83.
With his wife, Bonnie, Ward staged hundreds of musicals in San Diego, eventually bringing the couple’s three children into the family business.
Along the way, they mentored such soon-to-be theater luminaries as Tony Award-winning actors Christian Hoff and Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Casey Nicholaw, now a leading Broadway director.
“We were very, very lucky to have such a career,” Bonnie Ward said Wednesday.
The Wards were most closely identified with the San Diego Junior Theatre, where Ward served as artistic director for 15 years (his wife ran the dance program); the once-mighty but now-defunct Starlight Musical Theatre in Balboa Park, where the couple were artistic leaders for more than a decade; and Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista, where they became mainstays starting in the 1990s.
Ward had acted as recently as five years ago in a Moonlight production of “Little Women: The Musical.” But he had battled cancer in recent years, his wife said.
Born Nov. 7, 1933, in Billings, Mont., Ward moved to San Diego as a young boy and met his future wife when they were dance studio students. Ward made his acting debut at the Old Globe in 1949.
The couple’s three children — Kelly, Kirby and Lori — followed their parents onto the stage. Kelly Ward became a film actor, appearing in “Grease” among other films, while his brother stuck with theater, appearing on Broadway.
In 1985, the entire Ward family appeared onstage in a Starlight production of the musical “George M,” with Ward and his wife playing composer George M. Cohan’s vaudeville-veteran parents.
It was “the most magical thing I’ve ever seen on any stage,” said Bets Malone, a San Diego-based actress who came up through both the Starlight and Moonlight.
Perhaps more memorable for Malone (whose husband, Steven Glaudini, is now Moonlight’s producing artistic director) was when she learned Ward and his wife had cast her as the lead in Starlight’s production of “Annie.”
“[It was] the regional premiere; 250 little girls auditioned, and I was chosen,” Malone said. “They cast it quite early in the summer and had me travel around promoting the show for a couple months, singing at Starlight Society events. Don was with me every step of the way.”
Malone said that before the actor playing Daddy Warbucks arrived, Ward stepped into the role during rehearsals.
In 2005, the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle honored the Wards with a lifetime achievement award for their work in musical theater over the decades.
On its Facebook page, San Diego Junior Theatre said the organization was “deeply saddened to note the passing of Don Ward, a friend and mentor to thousands of Junior Theatre families.”
“As Junior Theatre’s real-life ‘Music Man,’ Don leaves an amazing legacy,” the note read. “During his 15 years of leadership, he and his wife Bonnie directed and choreographed scores of Junior Theatre productions and guided the growth of the organization from a small program at the Old Globe Theatre to a nationally recognized, multi-decade arts education institution.”
Moonlight Stage Productions also paid tribute to Ward, saying: “The Moonlight family has lost one of its own. We are saddened at the news of the passing of one of San Diego theater’s mavericks, Mr. Don Ward.”
Former Union-Tribune theater critic Welton Jones, who witnessed the Wards’ work on local stages over the decades, said Ward was always one to use his connections and expertise to help out others in local theater.
“He’s the last of the titans, in a way.”
Ward is survived by his wife, three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Hebert writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.