Wednesday, June 4, 2008

In Memoriam: Murry DePillars

Posted by Bruce Miller
Our friend Murry died last Saturday at his Richmond home. He was only 69 years old, which surprised me. It’s not that he seemed older; he didn’t. Spiritually he was perpetually vibrant and young. But he was such a towering figure in the Richmond arts community, I always imagined that he had to be more than a mere 12 years older than I.

I’m elevating Phil and myself by calling Murry our “friend.” If he thought of us at all in recent years, I’m sure he didn’t honor us with so personal a moniker. It would be more accurate to call Murry a mentor—a mini-mentor perhaps, not one of the ones who made it into our playbill bios, but a mentor nonetheless. More than anyone else, Murry DePillars convinced us that the arts were meant to be populist rather than elitist. He taught us that an artist who elevated himself over his community may not be an artist at all.

After serving as an assistant dean, Murry was promoted to Dean of VCU’s School of the Arts in 1976, one year after Phil and I founded Theatre IV. He held that position for 19 years. During his entire tenure, there was little institutional reason for Murry to take notice of Phil or me. He was a visual artist and a lover of jazz, and we were theatre upstarts with, during most of those years, little influence and even less power in the Richmond arts community.

And yet, from day one, Murry acted like we were worthy of his notice and friendship. He was Dean of the School of the Arts—a huge deal—and yet he willingly and eagerly gave us his attention and respect. And it wasn’t just us. He gave full credence to artists who chose to remain in Richmond, and never made us feel like anyone worth their salt would have moved on to New York. If anything, he made us feel like he awarded extra points to those who chose to grow where they were planted.

When Theatre IV purchased the historic Empire in 1986, Murry was among the few who made it possible.

Here's a brief history. In the mid-70s, a dashing and successful Varina home developer named Mitchell Kambis bought and cosmetically renovated the Empire. After a financially challenging stint as an impresario, Mitchell turned over ownership of the Empire to the mortgage holder, Central Fidelity Bank. The late Carroll Saine, who was Chairman and CEO of CFB at the time, was a close friend of the late Richmond icon Nina Abady. In the early 80s, Nina was a volunteer on the Theatre IV Board, but she was employed as Director of the Virginia Opera Association (VOA) – Richmond Office. Central Fidelity Bank donated the Empire to the VOA, under the condition that they continue to own it for at least two years.

Unfortunately, the Empire was too small for most operas. So as soon as the VOA’s two-year commitment concluded, they sold the Empire to a real estate developer from Roanoke.

In 1986, this developer began to actively seek buyers for the facility. Three parties expressed interest in the building: a Richmond-based developer who planned to convert the building into retail space and condos, Murry DePillars on behalf of VCU’s School of the Arts, and Theatre IV. Obviously, VCU could have outbid Theatre IV (we had no assets to speak of at the time), but the minute Murry learned that we were interested, he called us in for a meeting.

He said that his main interest was in preserving the historic building and keeping it out of the hands of those who wanted to convert it into commercial use. He said that if we were seriously interested, VCU would support us in our efforts to buy the building rather than bid against us. He made suggestions as to where we could go for financial support, and stood by our company until the building was purchased later that year and securely in our hands.

There were no power plays and no conditions—only encouragement and support.

Phil and I have missed Murry DePillars ever since his retirement from VCU in 1995. And we’ll continue to miss him and remember him with the greatest affection and respect. He was a giant in the development of Richmond’s arts community. When Theatre IV produces A Year with Frog and Toad in the Empire next spring, complete with a jazzy score Murry would have loved, we will dedicate the show to the memory of Dr. Murry N. DePillars, our mentor and friend.

--Bruce Miller

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just happened upon your blog while Googling my dear friend Murry DePillars. I loved your moving tribute to Murry so much, I found myself continuing to read your blog, post after post. What a wonderful theater you have. I know Murry must have been so proud to have played a role in inspiring and enabling such dedicated fellow artists. He believed in bringing art to the people and using art to address challenging social issues. And he lived his beliefs. You represent all that he held dear. Thank you for your fine work, and for your loving remembrance of a wonderful, inspiring man.

Arthur Johnson