Lore Noto, theatrical producer, actor and commercial artist, died Monday in New York City. He was 79.
Mr. Noto was best known as the producer of the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks. The show by author Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt, opened to mixed reviews on May 3, 1960 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, but the indefatigable Noto kept it running until its audience discovered it, and made it the longest running show in U. S. theatre history. By the time the final curtain was brought down on the production on January 13, 2002, the show had played 17, 162 performances, earning it the title the “World’s Longest Running Musical” in the Guinness Book of Records.
The show won numerous other honors, including an off-Broadway Obie Award, and a special Tony Award in 1992.
Lore Noto was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 9, 1923. Losing his mother as a young child, he was raised at the Brooklyn Home for Children, then in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. During his teen years he helped his widowed father operate a billiard parlor in Ridgewood, but young Noto trained to be a commercial artist. He also took an interest in acting, and began appearing on stages around the city in 1939.
“In those days,” he says, “Off Broadway was referred to as Little Theatre, primarily because of playhouse capacity. We performed in churches and New York City libraries doing Chekhov, Ibsen and original plays throughout the five boroughs.”
When World War II began, Mr. Noto tried to enlist, but was rejected because of his poor eyesight. Instead, he was able to join the merchant marine. While ashore in Antwerp, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, he was among those in a building struck by a direct hit by a German V2 rocket, and was gravely wounded. Mr. Noto was among a group of ten men selected to be the first merchant seaman to be awarded the Purple Heart. He later served in New York City as an artist with a U.S. Navy publication, and ended his career in the U.S. Maritime Service as a Chief Petty Officer in 1946.
Noto believed his theatrical success could not have been achieved without his wartime experience. He said, “We all know in comparison to the pain and horror of war, theatre is artifice. But the harsh disciplines I learned taught me the importance of collaboration.
Theatre is a collaborative art; showboating is the primary pitfall to be avoided; ‘Stroke oars together’ is a life survival truth. When I was offered the opportunity to produce THE FANTASTICKS, I was well prepared to accept the responsibility of so admirable a venture. I was able to not only recognize, but to trust, the special talents and skills of not merely its creators, but the many in all departments who have served the musical since its inception.”
He returned to commercial art following the war, and eventually operated his own studio. He found time to perform in many Off-Broadway productions, and began producing in partnership with others. After seeing a Barnard College production of a one-act version of The Fantasticks, Mr. Noto commissioned the authors to expand the work into a full evening of musical theatre. The show he produced ran nearly 42 years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village.
When a casting crisis arose in the first few weeks of the run, Mr. Noto stepped into the role of Hucklebee (The Boys Father) briefly. In 1971, stepped into the role again, and went on to perform it until 1986, winning a citation from Guinness, acknowledging a world record of 6,348 performances, longer than of any actor in a single role up to that time.
In 1986, illness forced Mr. Noto to retire from the stage, and he announced that he was closing the show. A storm of protest followed, and he relented. He brought Donald V. Thompson in as co-producer to help with the daily operation of the production. The show finally ended its run earlier this year with a gala farewell performance, with Mr. Noto personally bringing down the final curtain.
Lore Noto is survived by his wife Mary, a talented illustrator in her own right, to whom he has been married since 1947. He is also survived by three sons, Thad, of Gray, Tennessee, Anthony, of New York City, and Jody, of Vancouver, Washington, and a daughter, Janice, of Ossining, New York, and seven grandchildren. The family requests that donations be made to the Salvation Army in lieu of flowers.