May 4, 2007
Professor Emeritus Wendell Cole, set designer and theater scholar, dies at 92
By Cynthia Haven
Drama Professor Emeritus Wendell Cole, who taught dramatic literature and theater history at Stanford for over half a century, died of a stroke April 17 in Palo Alto. He was 92.
Cole designed sets and costumes for more than 250 productions at Stanford, ranging from Puccini operas to the plays of Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett and Eugene O'Neill, and was best known for work in creating historically rich and authentic settings.
He won four awards for creativity and service; the design room of Stanford's Drama Department is named for him.
Cole was born in Chicago on May 15, 1914. As a teenager, he attended the Chicago Art Institute and studied theater at the city's Goodman Theater. He earned a bachelor's degree from Albion College in Michigan in 1936 and a master's degree in medieval history a year later at the University of Michigan, where he also immersed himself in Japanese language and culture. He is the author of Kyoto in the Momoyama Period (1967).
In 1945, Cole began teaching in the Drama Department at Stanford, where he completed a PhD in drama and European history in 1951. That year, he also became an assistant professor. He taught dramatic literature and theater history at Stanford for 52 years, as well as designed and painted theater sets.
"Wendell Cole was, arguably, the finest teacher of design in the country," said Doyne Mraz (PhD, '64) of Southern Oregon University, a former artistic director for the Los Altos Conservatory Theatre. "His knowledge of historical theater and his acumen as a teacher captivated his students and his colleagues.
"Always gentle and a gentleman, Wendell worked untiringly for the theater, which was his life. Our classes with him were filled with wonder as he lectured and told stories about theater design and history. His is a great loss to the world of theater and to all of us who were fortunate enough to have worked with him."
Cole was the set designer for the first American production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes and the West Coast premiere of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, with libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. He also designed the set for Gluck's Iphigenia in 1963, considered at the time one of the best operas ever staged at Stanford.
Cole was also known for his active participation in Bay Area theater and volunteered his time to support it. He designed and painted sets for local community theaters, notably West Bay Opera and the Palo Alto Children's Theatre. He was particularly involved in encouraging children's interest in theater. For more than a dozen years, Cole and his wife chaperoned 50 young people from the Palo Alto Children's Theatre to plays and museums in Los Angeles and San Diego. Cole provided the scholarly guidance for the trips.
"Wendell was an extraordinary resource for our kids, and a very dear friend of the theater," said Michael Litfin, assistant director of the Children's Theatre.
Although Cole was blind in his later years, his remarkable memory was a resource for Stanford's Drama Department and local theatersfor example, several years ago he designed the set for the Palo Alto Children's theater production of Macbeth from memory.
Cole also wrote five film scripts for the series The Elements of Screen Design and was the editor for the first English translation of 19th-century actor and stage director Max Gruber's The Story of the Meininger (1963). Cole contributed to Theatre West: Image and Impact (1990), edited by Dunbar H. Ogden. His articles on theater history, set design and architecture appeared in many journals.
He is survived by his wife, Charlotte Cole of Palo Alto, a former special collections librarian at the Hoover Institution. Private services are scheduled to be held at University Lutheran Church.