Obituary: Arthur Ballet was a beloved teacher, a withering wit

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2012 - 9:25 PM

His classes at the University of Minnesota were famously popular with students for more than 25 years.

For more than 25 years, Arthur Ballet filled lecture halls at the University of Minnesota with his peerless dissertations on the history of theater. Ballet -- an academic, dramaturg and director -- died Monday in San Francisco, where he had lived for many years. Parkinson's disease claimed him a week before his 88th birthday.

From 1959 to 1985, Ballet was famously popular with his Introduction to Theater class -- required for majors and sought out as an elective by other students. His charismatic ability as a storyteller "made history come alive," said Bain Boehlke, now the artistic director of Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. His influence spread outside the classroom, too, because he required students to attend local theater productions, creating audiences and in some cases longtime patrons.

"It's hard to express how important Arthur Ballet was to the university and tens of thousands of its students, to the Guthrie and to the American theater," wrote Donald Schoenbaum, former managing director of the Guthrie, in an e-mail.

Ballet, who grew up in Hibbing and earned a doctorate at Minnesota, possessed a brilliant intellect and withering wit.

"He did not suffer fools gladly," said Richard Weinstein, whose mother was Ballet's first cousin.

Regardless -- or perhaps because of that quality, many former students and associates remembered him as inspirational.

"He was a fabulous teacher, so full of energy, and hilarious," said Karen Falkowske, who taught at University High School in Dinkytown when Ballet was there in the 1950s. "He would tell the kids to make a dent in the world, make a difference."

In addition to his classes, he served as a dramaturg at the Guthrie Theater, at ACT in San Francisco and for several summers at the National Playwrights Conference, held at the O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn. He was a Fulbright professor, teaching in Denmark, and reviewed theater and film for KSTP-TV for a few years.

"He was rather uninhibited in his response to things," said retired theater writer Dan Sullivan, whom Ballet brought to the O'Neill to head the critics institute.

A force on national scene

Nationally, Ballet served on the theater panel of the National Endowment of the Arts and headed the program during the Carter administration. He commuted between Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis so he could continue teaching his classes. Perhaps lesser known was his work in the Office for Advanced Drama Research, a position funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to match new playwrights with regional theaters. Among his discoveries was Terrence McNally, a four-time Tony Award winner.

"He was truly a force within the university, and nationally," said Jon Cranney, a theater artist who studied with Ballet. "Many of us remember him with great fondness and dread."

Ballet was part of a rather remarkable faculty in the university's Theater and Dance Department. His colleagues were Frank Whiting, Charles Nolte, Robert Moulton, Wendell Josal and Lee Adey. The school's reputation helped to lure Tyrone Guthrie to Minneapolis and found the regional theater movement. In addition to lecturing, Ballet directed university productions.

"Not a day goes by when I don't use one of the ideas, classroom or theater tricks that Arthur taught me," said John Soliday, a professor of motion pictures at the University of Miami in Florida. "I am what I am and where I am because of him. Art was one of the great people in my life."

Ballet moved to San Francisco after leaving the university. He had been ill for a few years, but retained his mental acuity. He returned to Hibbing about a decade ago to be honored by the Minnesota Association of Community Theatres. There will be a graveside service for Ballet at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Adas Israel Cemetery in Duluth, where his parents are buried.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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