May 9, 1919 ~ December 27, 2002
Ben Segal, 83, theatrical producer and founder of the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Connecticut, died Friday (December 27, 2002) at the Masonic Healthcare Center, Wallingford, after a brief illness. A resident of Wallingford for 42 years, Mr. Segal was born in Boston on May 9, 1919, to Frank and Rebecca Segal; the family moved to New Haven in 1924. Mr. Segal served with the United States Army in the South Pacific during World War II, and following his return to New Haven became General Manager of the Shubert Theatre, learning the craft of theatre from such masters as Henry Fonda, Richard Rodgers, Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins, and Tennessee Williams. In 1948, Mr. Segal and Anthony Brady Farrell took over operations of New York's Mark Hellinger Theatre, with Mr. Segal overseeing more than 70 stage productions for the Farrell Organization. In 1951, Mr. Segal produced the award-winning 'Billy Budd', and the following year, with George Kaufman, co-produced the revival of Kaufman's 'Fancy Meeting You Again' starring Walter Matthau. Mr. Segal returned to Connecticut in 1954 to found Wallingford's Oakdale Theatre, exploring the then new concept of seasonal theatre-in-the-round. In partnership with Buster Bonoff, a second theatre was opened in Warwick, Rhode Island in 1955, and Mr. Segal soon co-developed others in Buffalo, New York, and Framingham, Mass. Mr. Segal went on to co-found the Musical Arena Theatre Association of America, which represented ownership or operating control of over twenty theatres throughout the country. Oakdale began as a 1,600 seat tent-theatre, presenting summer stock Equity musicals. Within a few years Mr. Segal elevated the stature of the theatre by bringing in such Hollywood and Broadway stars as Van Johnson, John Raitt, Angela Lansbury, Howard Keel, Debbie Reynolds, and Ray Milland to star in the stage productions. Always responsive to changes in public taste, in 1972 Mr. Segal expanded the theatre's capacity to 3,200 and replaced the tent with a permanent wood dome, turning Oakdale into the state's preeminent concert venue. Week-long engagements by artists such as Danny Kaye, Harry Belafonte, Tom Jones, Jerry Lewis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Sergio Franchi, and Steve & Eydie eventually gave way to one-night performances ranging from singers Tina Turner, Kenny Rogers, to Huey Lewis, and comedians George Burns, George Carlin to Bill Cosby. Among the hundreds of artists who made their first Connecticut appearances on Oakdale's revolving stage were The Who, Cream, Led Zeplin, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Newhart, Eddie Murphy, Vince Gill, James Garner, and Reba McEntire. One of Mr. Segal's proudest accomplishment was the creation of the Oakdale Childrens' Theatre Series, that to this day remains a prominent part of Oakdale's programming. Few producers had as great a respect for talent of any variety as Mr. Segal, and as such, few producers were as respected by the artists themselves. In 1996, Mr. Segal saw the realization of his long-time dream for Oakdale when the theatre opened its doors as a new 5,000 seat year-round proscenium facility, with his wood dome proudly acting as the new theatre's lobby. Riverdance and Bruce Springsteen were soon to follow. While operating Oakdale, Mr. Segal's other activities included the creation of the Barnum Festival Theatre in Bridgeport; management of the Meriwether Post Pavilion in Maryland; concert presentations at the Hartford Civic Center, New Haven Coliseum, Palace theatres in both New Haven and Stamford, Woolsey Hall, The Bushnell and the Connecticut Tennis Center. In 1976, with attorney Emanuel Zimmer, Mr. Segal built the year-round Sunrise Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Mr. Segal was a founder and charter Commissioner of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts; was a member of the Friar's Club, the Quinnipiac Club, and the Masonic Order; and throughout his long career consistently served charitable organizations in the Greater New Haven area and State of Connecticut. Mr. Segal has been honored for his service to the state by Governor's Dempsey, Grasso, O'Neill, and Weicker. Mr. Segal's great passion beyond show business was photography, and his later years were spent traveling the world with wife Barbara, his friends, and his cameras. From the Beverly Hills Hotel to a village in Nepal or Ecuador, those who had the privilege to know Ben considered themselves fortunate, as he considered himself even to have simply met them - regardless of who they were. Mr. Segal is survived by his wife Barbara of Wallingford; son Beau, daughter-in-law Nancy and grandchildren Barrie and Milo of Woodbridge; daughter Rebecca of Los Angeles, California; son Mark of Portsmouth, New Hampshire; sister Shirley Abramson of Boca Raton, Florida. Pre-deceasing Mr. Segal were wife Clarice Cumbley Segal of Southport, England, and brother Maxwell of Hamden. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Clarice Segal Fund, Alzheimer's Resource Center, 1261 South Main Street, Plantsville, CT. 06479 or the Masonic Healthcare Center, P.O. Box 70, Wallingford, CT 06492. A Memorial Service open to all friends and family will be held at the Quinnipiac Club, 221 Church Street, New Haven (203-562-3147), at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 9th - cocktails, of course, to follow.