Sunday, February 17, 2013

R.I.P. Sidney Berger (1936-2013)

Sidney Berger earned for himself at least a footnote in film history for his iconic portrayal of the haunted heroine's obnoxious neighbor -- a performance memorably described by Roger Ebert as "the definitive study of a nerd in lust" -- in Carnival of Souls, Herk Harvey's stripped-to-essentials 1962 cult-fave ghost story. But I'm fairly certain that his friends and colleagues -- and the thousands of students (including Jim Parsons, Dennis Quaid, Brent Spiner and Robert Wuhl) he mentored during his decades as director of the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance -- would prefer to remember him for his far more respectable and inspiring achievements.

And those achievements were many. As Houston Chronicle theater critic Everett Evans noted Saturday in an obituary tribute, "Berger attracted national and international attention to the [UH School of Theatre and Dance] by importing celebrated theatrical talents as professors, including playwrights Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, Ntozake Shange and Mark Medoff; directors Jose Quintero and Peter Hall; and veteran Broadway producer Stuart Ostrow. He also brought award-winning writers, including Fiddler on the Roof composer Jerry Bock and Barnum librettist Mark Bramble, to create new musicals for the university's Children's Theatre Festival."

Berger also was founder and longtime director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre, where he directed at least one  production each summer between 1975 and 2010.

And while I never had the privilege of being one of his students, I can claim the honor of having him as one of my thesis advisers when, after years of gentle prodding by him and two other respected UH colleagues, I finally got around to completing the requirements for my long-delayed Masters Degree in Communications Studies in 2007.

To answer the inevitable question: Yes, Sidney Berger was richly amused by the notoriety he gained through his association with Carnival of Souls. And he was more than willing to chat (or joke) about the movie's enduring status a cult fave-rave. But I must admit: While he was my adviser, we spent more time talking about classic and contemporary theater -- and Robert Evans, whose tenure as production chief at Paramount Pictures was the subject of my thesis.

Berger was always gracious and encouraging throughout our sporadic meetings during this period. And I couldn't help noticing how available and accessible he always seemed to be for his students. Indeed,  on more than one occasion, I would show up for a confab and find his office empty -- but the entryway would be unbarred, and everything but a literal welcome map appeared to bid any visitor to enter and wait for his speedy return.

Occasionally, I would would kid him: "You know, Sidney, 'My door is always open' is just a figure of speech..." And he would laugh.

But, truth to tell, I never did find that door locked.

And just in case you might actually want to see Carnival of Souls... here is your chance. (Sidney Berger pops up around the 0:25:30 mark.)


Al Tran said...

That was a nice write-up, Joe. I wish I worked up the nerve to ask Dr. Berger to sign my Criterion DVD when I was still hanging around campus.

Joe Leydon said...

Trust me: He would have signed it.