ATCA legend Ira Bilowit dead at 90
Go to the N.Y. Times obit to sign the guestbook.
Scroll to the bottom of the extension of Bill Hirschman’s testimonial to find the separate “How Ira Bilowit Saved the Drama Desk from Oblivion!” by Glenn Loney.
ATCA chair Bill Hirschman writes:
Ira J. Bilowit, the esteemed arts journalist of New York City and good friend to most of ATCA and many more, passed away July 22 at age 90.
An ATCA member since 1976, Ira was instantly recognizable at any gathering with a broad welcoming smile, bright eyes, feisty attitude, silver goatee and a willingness to share his encyclopedic knowledge with anyone who asked. He could be counted on to hold court in the hospitality suite until younger members faded away.
His indefatigable service to ATCA included working with Sherry Eaker to create the wonderful New York conferences, especially lining up luminaries for the Sardi’s luncheon. He had volunteered in Philadelphia last spring to help with the upcoming New York meeting. His career and many services to ATCA were honored in April 2014 when he was given an emeritus membership.
Ira made no secret in the past year that he was in ill-health that included kidney issues; he was briefly in intensive care earlier this summer but then released to rehab.
Ira was also a former vice-president of the New York Drama Desk and a member of The Dramatists Guild and the International Association Of Theatre Critics. His lengthy career in arts journalism encompassed work as a theater critic, feature writer and editor. He served as reviewer and an editor of Show Businessi, 1953-1958 and managing editor, 1961-1963. He was a contributing editor to Back Stage, 1980-2006, and editor-publisher of New York Theatre Review, 1976-1980. His extensive freelance work was seen in American Way Magazine, Theatre Crafts and Other Stages. He was still working in recent years, such as contributing a Metropolitan Diary column to the New York Times in February 2015.
Over a half-century, he interviewed many of the leading performing arts practitioners in almost every medium, from Sir Derek Jacobi to Milton Berle. Most were published in newspapers, magazines and even his own three experiments with online blogging. His articles recounted interviews and roundtable discussions taped with Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, David Mamet, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Estelle Parsons, Diana Rigg, Joan Plowright, Jonathan Pryce, Edward Asner, Alfred Drake and Rex Harrison. Some of the articles were couched as if the interviewee had written them, but in fact Ira was the author and credited “as told to.”
But he was deeply involved in the creation of theater as a playwright, director and producer for Off-Broadway productions, children’s theater and dance presentations – as well as general manager, production manager, stage manager and educator. He produced with Unicorn Productions his own musical adaptation of Of Mice and Men in 1958; wrote The Secret Concubine for Carnegie Hall Playhouse in 1960; and directed his own script, For Love of Candy, in 1971 at the Forestburgh Summer Theatre in Monticello.
Born in New York City, he attended City College of New York, 1947-1950, studying English and philology. He had written short stories, poetry and a novelette. But he had no deep interest in theater until a friend took him to a college rehearsal where he realized he might write plays. To do that, he had to volunteer to paint scenery, hang lights, do publicity and act, something he did not think he was cut out for.
But that allowed him to produce and to write one-act plays, some of them experimental. The turning point occurred at a chance viewing of some random theater scenes based on the works of John Steinbeck.
He bought the rights for a six-month window to adapt and write lyrics for “Of Mice and Men,” along with a composer. With Steinbeck’s blessing, the show was mounted at the Provincetown Playhouse in November, 1958 with a cast including Jo Sullivan and Art Lund. It closed after six weeks because a newspaper strike delayed reviews. It was given a developmental reading in 2007 by the York Theatre Company.
Survivors include two sons, Michael and Bill, a Miami-based filmmaker, and his first wife, the acting teacher/coach Alice Spivak with whom he remained close. His second wife, Debbie Wasserman, who was a longtime ATCA member as well and worked for PBS’s Channel 13, preceded him in death.
To see a 2009 interview with him, click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sa9rAhmRp9c.
If ATCA members would like to share members, go to our forum inside our website at http://atca.memberlodge.org/page-1058365.
I REMEMBER IRA! OR, HOW IRA BILOWIT SAVED THE DRAMA-DESK FROM OBLIVION!
Not only was Ira Bilowit a Tell-It-Like-It-Is Crusty-Critic, but he was also a Dedicated-Truth-Teller when it came to defending Causes & Groups that he believed in.
One of the most important of these was the Original Drama-Desk, almost destroyed by one of its most Arrogant & Self-Promoting Members, Leo Schull, Editor/Publisher of Show-Business, a Trade-Rag that listed Upcoming-Auditions, Performance-Possibilities, & Show-Biz-Gossip.
As Initially-Organized by Actual-Drama-Desk-Editors—way back when there were still a number of Daily & Weekly Newspapers in & around Manhattan—the Drama-Desk was conceived & created as a Weekly-Wednesday-Noon-Luncheon at Sardi’s, complete with a Sardi’s-Buffet at $2.50 a Plate!
But this Drama-Desk was not just a “Chowder & Marching Society.” Nor was it composed Only of Drama-News-&-Reviews-Editors: Publishers, PR- Reps, Producers, Theatre-News-Reporters, Theatre-Interviewers, & Drama-Critics were all warmly welcomed to join Our-Weekly-Gab-Fests.
In addition to Getting-Together to “Meet & Greet,” as well as to discuss what was currently happening on the Great-White-Way, Panels were presented, usually Moderated by Henry Hewes—Drama-Critic for The Saturday Review—featuring Leading-Playwrights, Outstanding-Directors, Actors-Equity-Spokesmen, Broadway-Stars, & even Peter Brook with his Marat/Sade Cast!
Unlike the Current Drama-Desk, there were No-Major-Awards given. Only the Vernon-Rice-Award, honoring a Long-Forgotten-Critic, brother of Sports-Writer Grantland Rice.
On occasion, Ira or I would relieve Henry Hewes, presenting Panels of Our-Own- Devising. My Most-Memorable-Moment was my Mary, Queen-of-Scots vs. Queen Elizabeth Panel-Discussion, featuring among others Beverly Sills, Nancy Marchand, Salome Jens, Claire Bloom, & Eileen Atkins.
Unfortuately, Leo Schull always had to “Have-His-Say” at every Drama-Desk-Wednesday. These were always Self-Promotional-Moments, embarrassing to All save Leo Schull. At one Awkward-Session, Leo sat our new X-Rated-Movie-Porn-Queen, Georgina Spelvin, next to a completely-unaware Julie Andrews, who chatted amiably with what she believed was a Fellow-Artist.
This Unsettling-Event precipitated a Mass-Resignation from The Drama-Desk, with Ira & I among the Prime-Movers. We abandoned Sardi’s for a Less-Good-Location & Not-So-Hot-Buffet, but Henry Hewes was now in the Drama-Desk-Doghouse, so a New-DD-Coalition renamed Our-Group as The-New-Drama-Forum.
Instead of Challenging-Panels organized by Henry, Ira, & Yours-Truly, we now had Often-Tedious-Sessions, designed by our New-Drama-Moral-Police: John Beaufort [The Christian-Science-Monitor], Edith Oliver [The New Yorker], & Marilyn Stasio [Variety].
Boring! Boring! Boring!
Ira soon “Jumped-Ship,” leaving Henry Hewes & me to “Keep-the-Faith” with what used to be…
But one day, Henry called me: “Did you know that Ira & Debbie Wasserstein have revived our Old Drama-Desk, but now over at Rossoff’s?” Together with his Feisty-Partner, Debbie, Ira had indeed brought back the Drama-Desk we had known & loved.
In the Mid-West-Forties, Rossoff’s-Upstairs was No-Sardi’s. Nor was the Buffet, but the Management was very glad to Host-Us!
Bless You Both, Ira & Debbie! You would not recognize what The Drama-Desk has now become: Awards-Galore!
—Glenn Loney, Remembering Ira Bilowit, my Longtime-Colleague & Friend!