Obituary: Scott L. Denier / Locally renowned theater producer
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Pittsburgh stage actress Robin Walsh vividly remembers first meeting Scott L. DeNier at the local theater impresario's house in 1997. He made her get down on all fours and bark like a dog in his living room.
Ms. Walsh was auditioning for a lead in "Sylvia," a comedy about the love triangle among a man, his wife and his new dog.
Calling it a "very strange encounter," Ms. Walsh hoped that she was at a legitimate audition and not at the home of some "maniac."
It turned out to be the former. She got the role and began a collaboration with Mr. DeNier that lasted through several more stage appearances with his one-man Starlight Productions.
"Scott was as incredibly dedicated to theater as teaching. He produced all of his own shows by himself which is a monumental task which speaks to his deep love for and belief in what he did," Ms. Walsh said Thursday. "It's a job for five or six people and he did it on his own, frequently while also teaching as many 10 adjunct classes at various universities."
Mr. DeNier, an Illinois native who moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school 25 years ago, stayed put and became locally renowned for his stage work, was found dead Dec. 15 in his Squirrel Hill apartment from heart failure. He was 54 and had not been feeling well for the week leading up to his death.
"He was very very good and very loyal and very determined to have actors that were quality people in his plays, and he succeeded and he did a wonderful job. That was a feat in itself, just the mounting of projects as he did. It's a real loss personally and theatrically to the theater world," said Pittsburgh-based stage and screen actor Bingo O'Malley.
Mr. O'Malley appeared in several American classics staged by Mr. DeNier, including "Death of a Salesman" and "All My Sons."
Born in Harvard, Ill, a town of about 5,000, Mr. DeNier soon moved to a far smaller Illinois location with limited arts opportunities. With his mother working, he fell under the tutelage of his older sister, who exposed him to her interests in music and theater.
That influence, combined with the guidance of several key teachers in high school and college, propelled Mr. DeNier into a lifetime of theater and education, his sister, Jane DeNier Hayes, 64, of Rockford, Ill., said.
After earning a master's degree in theater and performance studies at Northwestern University, Mr. DeNier came east to pursue a doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh. He chose the Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson as his dissertation topic.
But before he could complete his studies, Mr. DeNier became smitten by Pittsburgh's theater community and collegiate atmosphere. He set down roots, founding Starlight Productions, named after a theater in Rockford, and went hard to work as both producer and director.
"Scott gave everything when he was in production mode. There was nothing that he overlooked," Ms. Hayes said.
"He really let you alone to develop your character because he had insight and he could see what he wanted but he let the actor bring that out. So in that way it was always very satisfying to work with him because you had so much say in the development of character," Mr. O'Malley said.
Over a decade, Mr. DeNier staged 27 productions, according to his resume, ending in 2004. At that time, friends and family said, he was burned out and was helping to attend to affairs involving his ailing mother who died shortly thereafter.
"When he stopped producing plays no one really picked up the torch that he left off, and it left a very large void with American classics," said Patrick Jordan of Point Breeze, who runs his own one-man theater company, barebones productions.
Mr. DeNier never finished his dissertation but he continued his teaching duties. He worked for brief stints at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University and then-Chatham College.
His longest relationship was with the Community College of Allegheny County, where he had been an adjunct professor since 1988 teaching English composition, oral communication, creative writing and theater.
It was students in Mr. DeNier's class who alerted the administration the night of Dec. 14 when he did not show up. That eventually led to a call to police.
Heart trouble ran in the family, Ms. Hayes said. Their brother, Tom, died of a heart malady and Mr. DeNier himself had a murmur, according to Ms. Hayes.
Mr. DeNier had varied interests. He collected first-edition books, Art Deco artifacts and furniture, sports memorabilia and glassware. He was working on a book about cocktails and cherished his Labradoodle, Tennessee, named after playwright Tennessee Williams.
"He was an amazing imp. He loved to tease and to just enjoy a good laugh with you," said Dr. Larry Leahy, 57, of Shadyside, a close friend for 24 years.
Mr. DeNier was cremated at D'Alessandro Funeral Home and Crematory in Lawrenceville and his ashes will be interred at Belvidere Cemetery in Illinois.
First Published December 23, 2011 12:00 am