A Life in Theater
At 98, Robert C. Schnitzer ’27 leads a busy and happy life in
retirement after a lifelong theater career. After traveling overseas
with a State Department program and running the University of Michigan
theater department, he’s now what he calls “a civilian.” Yet
Schnitzer keeps active by working with fellow residents on his Stamford,
Conn., retirement community’s resident council and serving on
the Board of Directors of The Players Club, a theater club in the Gramercy
Park section of Manhattan.
Born in 1906 in New York City, Schnitzer was educated at Horace Mann
School for Boys before attending the College. He was a Philolexian
and counted Jacques Barzun ’27 as a close friend. In fact, the
two shared the theater critic job at Spectator and headed down Broadway
together — if neither one was bringing a date — whenever
a new show opened. An international affairs major, he “was headed
for the Foreign Service, but got sidelined into theater.” Not
surprising, as he had been in all four Varsity
Shows during his undergraduate
years and, as a senior, had a paying job in The
Brothers Karamazov at The Theatre Guild on West 52nd Street, now The Virginia Theater.
As a young actor in New York, Schnitzer spent 10 years with the Walter
Hampden Company, appearing in or stage managing Hamlet, An
Enemy of the People, Richelieu, Henry
V, Richard III, Caponsacchi, Macbeth and
Cyrano de Bergerac. During this time, he also directed his own summer
stock theater in Arden, Del. — one of the first barn playhouses.
From 1936–39, Schnitzer was deputy director of the WPA’s
Federal Theatre Project.
Several years of academic and regional theater followed the close of
Federal Theatre and preceded three years with the American Red Cross
in China during WWII. After the war, Schnitzer returned stateside to
help revive the long-dormant American National Theatre and Academy
and spent several years as general manager for the Experimental Theater
in New York. A number of ANTA-sponsored events included performances
of American actors, musicians, dancers and vocalists in Europe, Africa,
Asia and South America. The hundreds of overseas productions Schnitzer
arranged ran the gamut from college choirs and athletes to notables
such as Marian Anderson, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and the New York
Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. During
his time with the program, Schnitzer was involved in sending 3,500
artists to 100 countries.
In 1960, Schnitzer became general manager of the American Repertory
Company, which was formed by The Theater Guild at the request of the
government to export the best in American theater. He arranged for
three plays — The Skin of Our Teeth, The
Miracle Worker and The
Glass Menagerie — to tour 28 countries in Europe and South America
in 1961, with a company that included Helen Hayes.
Schnitzer taught theater at Vassar, Smith, the New School and Columbia
before becoming a full professor at Michigan, where he created and
ran what became the Professional Theatre Program, the first program
to integrate academic and professional theater. He shared leadership
of this project with his wife, Marcella Cisney, a theater professor;
film, television, stage and opera director; and the first female television
director at CBS. They married in 1953; she passed away in 1989.
In the early 1980s and again in the mid-’90s, Schnitzer donated
papers and records from his work to George Mason University to create
the Robert C. Schnitzer Collection.