Laura Pels, devoted supporter of nonprofit theater, dies at 92

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Laura Pels, devoted supporter of nonprofit theater, dies at 92
She led a foundation that underwrote productions for numerous theater groups, as well as playwrights like Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller. Photo:

by Daniel E. Slotnik

NEW YORK, NY.- Laura Pels, a leading benefactor of nonprofit theater through the Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater, which has helped a multitude of companies stage plays in New York City and beyond, died Wednesday at a hospital near her home in Manhattan. She was 92.

The cause was complications of COVID-19, said her daughter Juliette J. Meeus.

Pels took control of the foundation that now bears her name in a divorce settlement with media executive Donald A. Pels.

“I decided that I was going to do exactly what I wanted with it: Help the theater,” she told Playbill in 1995. She did just that, diligently guiding the foundation from the 1990s until recently.

“She was incredibly involved and ‘hands on,’” Hal Witt, the foundation’s former executive director and a member of the board, wrote in an email, adding that Pels had “read all of the scripts that were submitted for funding.”

There were rules: Productions had to be run by accredited nonprofit theaters; a full script, along with a 500-word statement, had to be submitted; and musicals need not apply.

Pels forged relationships with leading playwrights like Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, Witt said, and with artistic directors like André Bishop at Lincoln Center Theater, James Houghton at Signature Theater and Todd Haimes at the Roundabout Theater Company.

Haimes, who saved the Roundabout from bankruptcy (and who died last month at 66), said in 1995 that “as traditional sources of funding are drying up, a person like Laura who will sponsor productions makes a huge difference to nonprofit theaters like ours.”

He added, “The fact that Laura is a creative person who can come up with her own projects and yet doesn’t tell us how to run the company is the nicest combination one could ask for in a supporter.”

Jack Brister, the foundation’s treasurer, said in an email that during his 20 years with the foundation, it had granted more than $5 million to nonprofit theaters in the United States.

Josette Jeanne Bernard was born May 1, 1931, in Saint-Vivien-de-Monségur, a village near Bordeaux, France. Her parents, Raymond and Jeanne Yvette (Dauvignac) Bernard, were schoolteachers.

She grew up near Bordeaux and then studied mime and acting in Paris before she decided that the stage was not for her. (Her daughter Juliette said her mother changed her name to Laura in her 20s because she disliked Josette.)

At 25, she moved to London to study English and met Adolphe Meeus, a translator for the United Nations. They married in 1956. After living for a time in Ethiopia, the couple moved to New York City and divorced in the mid-1960s.

She married Donald Pels in 1965. A communications executive, he took control of Lin Broadcasting in 1969 and served as its chair and president for the next 20 years.

Starting in the early 1980s, Donald Pels invested heavily in cellular communications, buying licenses from the Federal Communications Commission that became increasingly valuable as cellphone use spread. In 1989, McCaw Cellular bought a controlling interest in Lin in a deal valued at more than $3 billion. Donald Pels’ personal profit was estimated at nearly $175 million (more than $420 million in today’s money).

Not long after, The New Yorker reported that Laura Pels and her husband had donated more than $1 million to help actor Tony Randall start the National Actors Theater, originally out of the Belasco Theater on Broadway, to present affordable shows by playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov and Miller.

The Pelses filed for divorce in 1993, and Laura Pels became the foundation’s leader. (Donald Pels died in 2014.)

The foundation also funded Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. And it provided educational grants to up-and-coming artists at institutions like the Juilliard School and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

For many years Pels owned an apartment in Paris and Le Théâtre de L’Atelier in the city’s Montmartre neighborhood, which she ran with her daughter Juliette. In New York, she endowed an annual $10,000 cash prize for midcareer American playwrights for PEN America.

In addition to Juliette, she is survived by another daughter, Valerie A. Pels; a son, Laurence, who is on the foundation’s board; and four grandchildren.

In 1995, the Roundabout staged a production of Pinter’s “Moonlight” at a newly opened 399-seat venue on West 46th Street, the Laura Pels Theater.

“I thought it was an honor I didn’t deserve,” Pels said at the time. “But I realized that giving up a little anonymity could have a positive impact on the work I want to do.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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