Gordon Davidson, ‘Moses’ of LA’s theater scene, dies at 83

Producer of over 300 works played key role in transforming drama industry in Los Angeles, drawing heavily on prototypical Jewish roots

Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director of Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (Screen capture: YouTube)
Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director of Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (Screen capture: YouTube)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Gordon Davidson, a Brooklyn-born director and producer who played a key role in transforming Los Angeles from a perceived theatrical backwater into a creative center for innovative and controversial plays, died Sunday.

Davidson died after collapsing at dinner in his Santa Monica, California, home. He was 83.

As the founder of the Mark Taper Forum, and as a producer of more than 300 works and director of some 40 plays for its Center Theatre Group, he brought the Los Angeles theater scene out of the shadow of the movie business and into the spotlight in its own right.

The late Gil Cates, the producing director of the Geffen Playhouse, once described Davidson as “the Moses of theater in Los Angeles.”

The banner years of the early 1990s saw original productions at Taper of the six-hour landmark dramas “The Kentucky Cycle” by Robert Schenkkan and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” The works won the Pulitzer Prize in back-to-back years. In 1994, three out of four plays vying for the Tony Award were originally Taper productions.

In both his personal and professional lives, Davidson drew frequently on his Jewish heritage. He directed or produced such Jewish-themed works as “Dybbuk,” “Number Our Days,” “Tales from Hollywood,” “Green Card,” “The Immigrant” and “Ghetto.”

“I guess we are the prototype of the American Jewish family,” he observed during one of a series of interviews with this reporter over a quarter of a century. “My paternal grandfather, born in a small town near Kiev, was Orthodox, my father was Conservative and I’m Reform.”

In a 2007 interview, Davidson said a major influence was his affiliation with the Leo Baeck Temple, a liberal Reform congregation in West Los Angeles led by a succession of socially active rabbis. He drew a parallel between their work and his own as artistic director.

“In some ways, both deliver sermons,” he said. “Sometimes a rabbi has to ask disturbing questions which his audience may not want to hear. The artist has the same function.”

Davidson is survived by Judy, his wife of 57 years; their children, Adam Davidson and Rachel Davidson Janger; brothers Michael and Robert, and five granddaughters.

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