A Life in the Theater
Joe Lotito takes his final curtain call as the force behind Salt City Center for the Performing Arts
At the end, his courage was screwed tightly to the sticking place, and his colors were still flying. Joe Lotito (always “Joseph N. Lotito” in the program) died Oct. 25, just as his beleaguered company, Salt City Center for the Performing Arts—homeless since the June 2004 closing of its beloved Salt City Playhouse on the corner of South Crouse Avenue and Harrison Street—was mounting a revival of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy. It was in yet another new venue, the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Center on East Genesee Street. His passing closed the show in mid-run.
It was not at all like him to prevent a performance from going on. But it was entirely characteristic that after all the blows his company has suffered and his declining health, he would still have Salt City up and running. Daisy was well-cast, with Shirley Fenner, widow of former Syracuse University Drama Department head Gerald F. Reidenbaugh, in the title role, and versatile stalwart David Walker as Hoke. Daisy brings sparkling dialogue and deep-felt, genuine emotion, and it argues for acceptance of differences over religion and race. It’s not surprising that it was Lotito’s last message to us.
Jack of all trades: Joe Lotito often wielded a hammer to work on sets at the former Temple Adath Yeshurun, the repair-plagued South Crouse Avenue building that Salt City Center called home from 1973 to 2004.
No one ever called him a pussycat, and Joe Lotito could be gruff. Consider the memoir of veteran actor Doug Meech, now with CNN, found on his Facebook account. The loving chapter on Lotito is titled, “I built this theater, God dammit!” Combative things were said to him and about him. Angry performers roared that they would never work with him again and would found their own companies, and they did. Commentators in the press could be harsh, none more than in the Syracuse New Times. One reviewer 30 years ago was banned from Salt City Center and had to use stealth to get in to cover performances. Perhaps the unkindest words, more than once, came from the author of this tribute.
All that feels long ago and irrelevant now, like trying to remember the date of Gadsden Purchase. The news of Lotito’s death changed all that. Grim rumors had been circulating for a week, but the end was still a shock. Tributes poured in, more than 60 from around the nation. Most strike the same note: He gave me my first chance. Such testimonies come from some of our best performers: Moe Harrington, Bill Molesky, Tamaralee Shutt and Jacque Tara Washington.
One comes from a longtime staffer of the alternative weekly you’re holding in your hand. Syracuse New Times photographer Michael Davis was Salt City Center’s director of public relations from 1979 to 1981, despite the small detail that he had no experience whatsoever. “The first thing Joe told me,” Davis recalls with a laugh, “was to make sure Syracuse Newspapers columnist Joan E. Vadeboncoeur got press releases and first choice of photos. He wanted the press releases out well before the show opened and he made sure to service the news outlets with new material, highlighting some different aspects of the show, throughout the production’s run. He was involved in every single aspect of the theater: He swung a hammer, he fixed the boiler, he gave final OK to the sets. The theater was certainly in his image; if anyone was an auteur, it was Joe Lotito.”
Crossing guard: Joe Lotito’s reverent treatment of the religious rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (with Bob Brown often in the title role) was a Lenten tradition for more than 30 years.
Lotito’s long career, touching on several hundred productions and interacting with thousands of actors, musicians and technicians, is so huge we have to step back to get perspective. We can see him better from 260 miles away. In the program for the 1988 Broadway smash hit Les Miserables, fully three members of the large cast cited Lotito’s Salt City Center for the Performing Arts in their credits. Across the rest of the performers’ bios there were no instances of two people sharing the same hometown (and a Class-D market at that), and most other performers thanked collegiate programs, not community theater companies. That’s because no other city had anything quite like Salt City Center for the Performing Arts.
Not just any community theater company, because in the American landscape they are as common as American Legion halls. Most community theater groups, including all the others still in town, serve niche markets. They draw on a coterie of performers and attract audiences who come knowing what to expect. At Salt City the door was always swung wide open.
While there were two stages at the playhouse, the offerings were a study in contrast. In the big theater you might have musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba or (again and again) Jesus Christ Superstar while on the smaller stage you might have the intense Beethoven Karl by David Rush, about the great composer’s conflict with his nephew, or Arthur Miller’s little-seen Incident at Vichy, on anti-Semitism. Who but Salt City would stage an explosive, interracial A Streetcar Named Desire in which vulnerable Blanche faces a confident black man named Stanley Williams? In July 1982, Salt City gave us an original baroque opera, The Curious Virgin, with a score by Richard Kroot and libretto by SUNY Cortland’s Joel Shatzky. It was as if W.A. Mozart, or a starstruck admirer of the composer, had come back to the earth and landed on South Crouse Avenue.
Risky ventures could be costly. Some nights there were more people on stage than in the seats. Other gambles paid off handsomely. Original shows like Throne and Alice in Wanderland, both created by Lotito’s musically talented wife of 50 years, Pat, were well-received. Her A Dickens of a Christmas, done with Ken Prescott, always did great box office, once beating a posh production of the same story in A Christmas Carol down the street at Syracuse Stage. La Cage aux Folles and Me and My Girl did turn-away business. And more people saw the annual production of Jesus Christ Superstar than any other live show of the last 40 years, including Menopause: The Musical.
A full season on two stages year after year meant Salt City was constantly issuing casting calls and, indeed, had an insatiable need for talent. Holding auditions took up big chunks of Lotito’s time. In shows with large casts Lotito found ways of employing willing people other companies would have rejected. What about the well-behaved boy with autism? He could add his voice to a chorus and be helped along by his mates. A blind person with a seeing-eye dog? Lotito thought such a person would add the right touch to the procession with Jesus’ entrance in Superstar.
Lotito’s work did not end when a show opened. Harrington reports that when she tried out for her first-ever role, Rizzo in Grease, she did not make the cut but was asked to stay on to understudy every female role. Unfortunately for Harrington, it was the healthiest cast ever, with nary a cough or sniffle. Toward the end of the run, Lotito called her for the role of Rizzo, and when she was on stage she could see the actress originally cast, brimming with good health, seated in the audience. Lotito sat in the balcony and later came by to give Harrington a compliment on her performance, never letting on that he had wanted her to have the chance to shine.
Honor roller: Among the many accolades earned by Salt City Playhouse, Joe Lotito (pictured above, with then-Mayor Tom Young) takes his prize during the first (and last) Rexie Awards, named in memory of theater entrepreneur Rex Henriot, in June 1987, and shows off his Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award in May 2004 (below). MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Nort Side Story
In at least a half-dozen interviews, Lotito said he founded Salt City Center because too many people thought of Syracuse as a cultural desert, a blue-collar burg where the best thing to do on a weekend was get drunk. Some may find that unfair, as Syracuse is a university city where hospitals, with highly trained staffs, have become the leading employers. But Lotito was also a townie rather than a denizen of “the Hill,” even though Salt City Center, from 1973 to 2004, was a few blocks from the university and never a part of it.
Born on the North Side, Lotito was a lifelong practicing Italian Roman Catholic, often attending Mass late Saturday afternoon, before the evening performance. He attended North (“Nort” in the local patois) High School on Pond Street, long since demolished. He had two tours of duty in the services, in the Army in World War II and the Marine Corps in the Korean War. Even with those interruptions, he had been working in Heavy Military for General Electric for 23 years when he founded the original Salt City Playhouse in 1968 at a warehouse on Peat Street, south of Erie Boulevard East.
Against all odds, Lotito’s complete life in the theater, from beginning to end, was local. Not that he was parochial. Two of his mentors bear names that still live with us. One was Kenneth Bowles, the Syracuse-based actor-director with a national reputation whose company was the byword for quality in the years after World War II. The lack of a Syracuse theater archive prevents us from being specific about roles and dates, but Lucille Markson remembers Lotito favorably in a supporting role for William Saroyan’s sweet and wistful The Time of Your Life some time in the 1950s. Bowles was the dominating presence, Joseph T., who observes and comments on events in a San Francisco bar, while Lotito was his loyal sidekick and gofer, Tom. It was with Bowles’ company than Joe met his wife Pat, who would become the musical force at Salt City Playhouse.
Also influential was Sawyer Falk, then head of the SU Drama Department, at a time when SU’s gown had more presence in town. Falk, also the mentor of Jerry Stiller (experienced stage actor best known as the elder Costanza in Seinfeld) and Frank Langella, must have liked flavorful ethnics.
Lotito’s move from GE to a precarious life devoted to the arts began with performance instruction for urban youth in 1963, what would eventually come to be known as TAFY, Theatre Arts for Youth. When Salt City Playhouse was founded five years later, graduates of the youth program found places in the interracial musical, The Me Nobody Knows. When asked about Lotito’s greatest contributions, longtime ally Bob Brown cites the efforts for interracial inclusion first. He championed interracial casting when it was uncommon and came at some cost. Salt City was also a home for African-American theater such as the musical Dreamgirls, where interracial casting called for some white faces in the chorus, and Samuel Kennedy’s Pill Hill, his M.F.A. thesis from the Yale Drama School.
The warehouse on Peat Street came on the market because of the building’s structural difficulties. Built on soft soil right next to Route 690, the edifice (since repaired) was in such bad shape it could not be used for its original purpose, but parts of it were salvaged for the arts. Now-defunct classical music station WONO-FM was in the front, and Salt City Playhouse was in the back. Some early Peat Street shows did tremendous box office, such as a memorable Private Lives with Bowles, Millie Sovik, Fenner and Reidenbaugh. On Peat Street Lotito had his first incarnation as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, which would become his signature role. At Lotito’s funeral, Tevye’s cap rested on a Salt City Center poster for Fiddler in the lobby of the Ballweg and Lunsford Funeral Home in Lafayette.
The company would become Salt City Center for the Performing Arts in 1973 with the move to the former Temple Adath Yeshurun, which Lotito leased from the city of Syracuse for $1 a year. Despite the proximity to the SU campus and a sizable amount of space that enabled Lotito to run two separate theaters, both cranking out a dozen or more productions each season, the 1916-vintage building at 601 S. Crouse Ave. also featured a cantankerous furnace, a roof prone to leaks and an antique system of electrical wiring.
Man of a Thousand Faces
As the man who built the company, Lotito was always available for a wide variety of parts, large and small, from Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons to one of the murder victims in Sweeney Todd. The hearty, exuberant roles, like Tevye and Zorba, were always popular with audiences. He never shied away from the most demanding dramatic roles, like Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Many will argue that his Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, especially the first one in 1978, was the apex of a lifetime.
Role playing: Joe Lotito’s many stage performances include...
Born Yesterday opposite Carol Lynn Ditch
Incident at Vichy with Danni Seif
the political musical Fiorello!
and alongside Bob Brown in Two By Two.
Longtime Salt City Center actor Frank Fiumano demurs. From Fiumano’s point of view, often as performer on the same stage, Lotito’s real strength was in the small, subtle gesture or the underplayed line of dialogue. He cites in particular passages of Richard Rodgers’ late work, Two by Two, the Noah story, popular in town in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A daughter must die in his arms. The line was written for Danny Kaye and calls for pathos to overcome irony: “Now, why did you go and do a thing like that.” It could have been tasteless and silly, but when Lotito delivered the line the audience gasped with emotion.
Fiumano and this reviewer agree that Lotito’s greatest performance was seen only by small audiences, that for Ronald Harwood’s English drama, The Dresser, in 1984. Harwood has always made clear the play is autobiographical, taken from the time he worked with the late Donald Wolfit, the actor-manager of a struggling dramatic company that didn’t always get respect from the tony West End crowd. The Wolfit character, known only as “Sir,” is having trouble learning his lines for a performance of King Lear. As if this were not enough to suggest art-imitates-life, the real Wolfit, although British, looked a bit like Lotito, with large dark eyebrows. Lotito was completely on top of his lines, even blowing Sir’s muffs on cue. His performance was alive with nuance and stifled gestures that riveted the small crowd. Fiumano recalls that Lotito’s death scene for Sir had Fiumano the actor in real tears night after night.
Lotito the stage director was less visible to the audience but worked harder than Lotito the actor. His enduring work must be Jesus Christ Superstar, the company’s greatest moneymaker for a generation. Brown, the title character for innumerable years, reports that Lotito was “very old school.” Lotito never messed with what was not broken, and so was unheeding of different interpretations of the Jesus story from Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson. More impressive from this reviewer’s point of view were smaller, unexpected productions, such as a quite dazzling Biloxi Blues in the mid-1990s.
Staying alive: Joe Lotito receives a much-needed check for $210,270 from former Congressman (and Cardinal) James T. Walsh for renovations to Salt City Center’s detiorating structure, part of a 2001 earmark when Walsh was chairing the House Appropriations Subcommittee.
The burden of running the whole company, like making sure the heat was on, could also be a distraction. “Anybody can do it with money,” Lotito remarked in a January 1998 New Times interview. “If I had the money Syracuse Stage has, I could gold-plate the theater. We’ve had to take a sow’s ear and make a silk purse. We’ve had to work with nothing.” (Six years later, the city of Syracuse evicted Salt City Center from the South Crouse venue because of fire-code violations.)
Ex-PR director Davis concurs about those cash-strapped days. “It was always difficult because he was running on a shoestring, but Joe got a lot out of everybody. The quality of work that he did with no budget, like sets built out of cardboard that looked great, forced people to bring their best game to the show. Joe also gave me the opportunity to do photography, and he directed me to my career path. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
But when Lotito the actor could give his full attention and his heart was in the project, he could charm his severest critic. Among the best of later years was the metaphysical drama from the 1930s, Death Takes a Holiday by the Italian playwright Alberto Casella. The story was later ripped off by the movie Meet Joe Black (1998), with Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt. Put side by side, Lotito had them all beat.
Joseph N. Lotito left us at four score and two. He was the same age as playwrights and performers who already left or are fading from the scene: 1927 was also the birth year for Neil Simon, George C. Scott, Peter Falk, Sidney Poitier and Harvey Korman, Carol Burnett’s reliable comic foil. Pretty good company. With a certain fey cuteness one could argue that Lotito has something in common with all of them, maybe Peter Falk the most, an SU graduate.
Putting aside Falk and Korman’s grinds on television, Lotito certainly put more hours of his life into live theater than any of them. For how many of the others can performers say, “He gave me my start”? The five others achieved fame and affluence and could fly first-class on the airlines. Lotito devoted his life to give back to his hometown, a rust-belt burg that suffered mostly bad economic news all the years Salt City Center was with us. Unlike the five others, Lotito ate, drank and slept the theater and gave of himself completely, literally bleeding himself dry to keep it alive.
The debts Joe Lotito incurred keeping Salt City alive unfortunately outlive him. Contributions in his memory may be made to Salt City Playhouse, P.O. Box 6057, Syracuse 13217.