(From Diane Levinson, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 6/28.)
John A. Willis, who as editor of the Theatre World and Screen World annual series for over 45 years was often considered one of the most important theatre and film historians in America, died June 25, 2010, at his home in Manhattan, of complications from lung cancer. He was ninety-three years old. Willis was also the longtime producer of the Theatre World Awards, given to actors for outstanding Broadway and Off-Broadway debut performances. It is one of the oldest awards bestowed on New York stage actors and helped launch the careers of Alan Alda, Bernadette Peters, and John Leguizamo among many others.
As editor of Theatre World from 1965 to 2008, Mr. Willis meticulously chronicled the seasons of Broadway, regional theatre, summer stock, touring companies, actors’ biographies, obituaries, major theatrical awards, and as they came into existence, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. During the same time period, Mr. Willis also edited Screen World, the annual record of foreign and domestic film releases. Both annual series have been published by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, since 1993. In 2009 Ben Hodges took over editing Theatre World and Barry Monush took over Screen World.
John Cerullo, group publisher of Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, said, “All of us at Applause Books enjoyed our long working relationship with John. He will be sorely missed by all of us. We are privileged and proud to continue working with Ben and Barry in publishing both Theatre World and Screen World, an important part of John Willis’s legacy.”
Mr. Willis is highly regarded for his long-standing dedication as producer of the Theatre World Awards, which were created in 1945. Mr. Willis’s Theatre World Award ceremonies were legendary in the New York theatre scene for their informality, as they warmly welcomed a new crop of actors into the community of New York stage performers.
During his introduction to the ceremony Mr. Willis would goodheartedly admonish the winners “there is no need for a long speech” and “were it not for luck, looks, and supportive parents, you probably wouldn’t be here,” ending with the tongue-in-cheek advice “be brief, be beautiful for our photographers, and be off.” This supposedly curmudgeonly demeanor delighted those in the know, who recognized it as an act put on ironically by a man who felt great affection for actors just beginning a stage career.
The parties thrown at Mr. Willis’s Riverside Drive home following the Theatre World Awards in their 1960s-80s heyday were the stuff of legend, the space large enough to accommodate a salon of exuberant current and previous winners. Regular fixtures were Carol Channing, Colleen Dewhurst, Dorothy Loudon, Bob Fosse’s first wife and dance partner, Marianne Niles, and Maureen Stapleton, among many other theatrical elite. Ms. Loudon (most notable for her role as Miss Hannigan in Annie) would regularly recall at Theatre World Awards gatherings that Mr. Willis had presented her with an award from a Broadway production that lasted only one week, 1962’s appropriately titled Nowhere to Go But Up.
John Alvin Willis was born in Morristown, Tennessee, on October 16, 1916, to John Bradford Willis, a pharmacist, and George Ann Meyers, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. He graduated cum laude from Milligan College in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1938, and received a MA from the University of Tennessee in 1941. Enlisting in the United States Navy in 1941, he served a two-year stint in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, becoming a part of the US Naval Reserves until 1945.
He moved to New York City in 1945 to become an actor. That summer he was participating in summer stock in Cedarhurst, Long Island when Norman MacDonald, director of the production, mentioned that he and Theatre World co-founder Daniel Blum were looking for a typist to type the entries for the annual series. Mr. Willis put in for the job, and got it, having been the assistant typing teacher at alma mater Milligan College in Tennessee.
Mr. Willis holds the unofficial record of seeing more Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway shows than any other person. It is surmised that he attended between seven and nine shows a week for over fifty-eight years, with the exception of a two-week vacation in June of every year. In addition, Mr. Willis was a New York City public school teacher for over twenty years, lastly at Haaren High School. Both of Mr. Willis’s marriages—to Claire Olivier in 1960 and Marina Sarda in 1978—ended in divorce. He had no children.
On behalf of Theatre World, Mr. Willis received a 2001 Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre, the 2003 Broadway Theater Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, a 1994 special Drama Desk Award, and in 1993, the first Outstanding Special Lucille Lortel Award. On behalf of Screen World, he received the 1998 National Board of Review William K. Everson Award for Film History. Mr. Willis served on the Tony Award nominating committee, the New York University Musical Hall of Fame selection committee, and the board of directors of the National Board of Review. In 1996 he received a caricature on the wall of Sardi’s.
Having compiled obituaries annually for Theatre World for over fifty years, Mr. Willis was known to express dismay when causes of death, especially of older celebrities, were not cited. He was fond of saying: “Everyone dies of something. I don’t understand why they say natural causes, when all causes are natural unless you’re murdered or die in an accident, so they should print what it was that killed them!” He would then add that “When I go, please mention what killed me.” For the record, Mr. Willis succumbed to complications from lung cancer.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Theatre World, c/o 190 Riverside Dr. #1D, New York, NY 10025
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