John Blankenchip dies at 89; theater designer and director taught half a century at USC

John Edward Blankenchip, a theater designer and director who was an emeritus professor of the USC School of Theatre and the founder of Festival Theatre USC-USA., has died. He was 89.

Blankenchip died Wednesday of age-related causes at a healthcare facility in Los Angeles, said Tony Sherwood, assistant dean of communications for the School of Theatre.

What was then known as USC’s department of drama was only a decade old when Blankenchip joined the faculty in 1955. He continued to teach classes in directing and experimental theater at USC until a month before he died.

“He was a real champion of the art form,” said Jack Rowe, associate dean of the School of Theatre. “But also he somehow really inspired the students to want to do it and want to do it on their own.”

Rowe speaks from first-hand experience. He was a USC economics major in the mid-1960s when he auditioned for a play and Blankenchip cast him in it.

“He was my first contact with the theater,” Rowe said. “I really believe meeting him changed my life. He had that effect on literally hundreds of students. Once you proved to him you could do it, there was no more supportive person for your work . . . and it was lifelong.”

Blankenchip was the founder, producer and director of Festival Theatre USC-USA, a company of USC students and alumni believed to have been the first university group to perform on the Fringe of the Edinburgh International Festival. (The Fringe is where theater groups perform outside the official auspices of the festival.)

From 1966 to 2005, the company mounted works for 23 seasons on the Fringe, performed in London, Amsterdam and Paris and completed three tours of Germany for the State Department.

During that time, Blankenchip received Fringe First Awards for the British premieres of “Buried Child” and “Follies.”

He also directed a production of Marcy Lafferty’s one-woman, one-act drama” Vivien Leigh: The Last Press Conference” on the Fringe, as well as in London, off-Broadway and at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood.

Blankenchip also designed for the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, the Guild Opera Company in Hollywood and the La Jolla Playhouse; and he directed and designed for the Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles.

Since 1972, he had been author Ray Bradbury’s designer of choice for productions of his plays -- most recently for “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena earlier this year.

“He did designs for 15 of our plays,” Bradbury said Friday. “He was wonderful. The greatest thing he did about 10 years ago was ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’; it was brilliant.”

Born in Independence, Kan., on Nov. 14, 1919, Blankenchip earned a bachelor’s degree in design and directing from what is now Carnegie Mellon University in 1941, followed by a master of fine arts degree in design and directing from Yale in 1943.

He spent the next three years designing scenery, costumes and lighting both on and off Broadway, first as assistant to designer Harry Horner and then on his own.

He then began teaching and spent eight years on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. A 1955 sabbatical working as a designer at USC led to his being offered a teaching position there.

In honor of Blankenchip’s golden anniversary at the university in 2005, the School of Theatre established the John Blankenchip Visiting Artist Endowment.

He had no immediate surviving family members.

The School of Theatre is planning a memorial celebration of Blankenchip’s life for later this year.