Former OSF leader Bill Patton dies

Bill Patton, the longtime guiding light of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, died Thursday evening at age 83.

The OSF announced it is dedicating the 2011 season, its 76th, to Patton, who led the company from 1953 to 1995.

He had remained a highly visible presence in Southern Oregon after his retirement, attending play openings at the OSF and elsewhere with his wife, Shirley, and supporting live theater and the arts. He had waged a long battle with prostate cancer.

Shirley Patton recently described the last few weeks as "being in the moment with Bill." She added that many friends and family had been coming to visit.

OSF Executive Director Paul Nicholson said in a statement that Patton was one of the seminal figures who created the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which grew from a slapdash, three-day event in Lithia Park into one of the nation's leading regional theaters.

"He brought a wisdom and humanity to the fledging organization in 1953 that has greatly impacted the Festival over the years," Nicholson said. "... He was a gentleman in every way, kind, thoughtful and caring; his values continue to imbue the Festival. I am one of hundreds and hundreds who can say with certainty, 'If it were not for Bill Patton, I would not be where I am today.'

"He was my friend, my colleague and my mentor — a great man of the theatre and a great citizen of Oregon."

The OSF under Patton's helm grew from 29 performances and an audience of 15,000 to 752 performances and an audience of 359,000.

"All of us who work at OSF stand on the shoulders of this giant," OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch said in a statement. "I am privileged to have known him and learned from him. Bill Patton's life is proof that kindness and gentleness combined with integrity are a mighty force for making the world a better place."

Patton was born in Medford on Sept. 22, 1927. The family moved briefly to Berkeley, Calif., but returned to Medford, where Patton cultivated an interest in drama in high school. After graduating from Stanford University, he served two years in the U.S. Army, worked at CBS radio in Hollywood, and in promotions for the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco.

Joining the festival as a lighting designer in 1948, he did a variety of jobs, including wardrobe assistant. He also acted, playing Paris in "Romeo and Juliet" in 1949 and Prince John in "Henry IV Part One" in 1950 and other parts.

In 1953, founder Angus L. Bowmer appointed Patton as general manager — the OSF's first full-time employee. He was president of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce in 1963. In 1981, his title was changed to executive director. He was known as a tireless promoter of the OSF and the arts. On his retirement, the Oregonian newspaper said Patton's career showed that "kindness and compassion don't have to be handicaps in running an arts organization."

Among the people Patton lured to Ashland was his friend Richard L. Hay, now the OSF's senior scenic and theatre designer, who is in his 52nd season at OSF.

The team of Patton and Hay was responsible for much of what people see at today's OSF. They designed and oversaw construction of the present Elizabethan Theatre in 1958 and did the same for the Angus Bowmer Theatre, which opened in 1970. In 1977 they opened the Black Swan and in 1991 the Pavilion surrounding the Elizabethan Stage.

Patton met his wife, Shirley Douglass, who survives, when she came to OSF in 1958 to act. They were married in December 1958 and have three children and seven grandchildren.

In 1983 Patton went to New York to accept the Tony Award for regional theater. In a National Enquirer story he was identified as a "show biz exec" dancing at the ceremony with longtime friend Ginger Rogers, who had retired to the Rogue Valley. In 1993 Patton received the Oregon Governor's Award for the Arts.

"I think theatre and the arts in general certainly are keynotes to our civilization," he said at a retirement fete. "And — as you look back in history to the various civilizations that have failed — it generally was because, in part, they paid less attention to the arts and more to wealth and all the policies that feed into war. And those people who are attacking the arts now — well, I think basically that they just don't understand how important art is to humanity.

"I'm sure the Festival will still be around — and flourishing — long after I'm gone."

Memorial events will be announced at a later date.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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