Richard Neil Mitchell, 73, decorator, theater set designer

April 09, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Richard Neil Mitchell, who was semiretired from National Wallcoverings Inc. where he was a manager and interior decorator for 40 years, died April 1 of lung cancer at Joseph Richey Hospice Inc. He was 73.

Mr. Mitchell, who began his career at what then was National PHOTO Mr. Mitchell Wallpaper's Howard Street store in 1954, had a reputation as a local theatrical set designer and muralist whose specialty was trees.

He was an accomplished trompe l'oeil painter and enjoyed painting abstracts and creating life drawings. A world traveler, Mr. Mitchell enjoyed sketching and taking photographs of subjects that he would later reproduce in his Mount Washington studio.

In the early 1960s, longtime friend Raymond Hamby of Baltimore said that Mr. Mitchell was called in by opera singer Rosa Ponselle after the final dress rehearsal at the Lyric Theatre to redo the set of an opera that was to open the next evening.

"After the cast departed, Mitch took over the huge set with ladders, brushes and pots of paint. Much to the diva's delight, by curtain-time the next evening, the lackluster set had been transformed into a sea of glittering gold," Mr. Hamby said.

During the late '40s and '50s, Mr. Mitchell designed sets for Don Swann Jr., a theater impresario who operated Hilltop Theater at Emerson's Farms in the Green Spring Valley during the summer and in the winter moved to the Belvedere Hotel.

One of Mr. Mitchell's more colorful theatrical experiences occurred during a 1953 production at the Belvedere Hotel of Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women."

The play, which featured the theatrical debut of Magda Gabor, one of the famous Gabor sisters, included a scene in which another actress, Michaele Myers, took a bath.

Ms. Myers accidentally kicked out the plug in the tub and, as the water level dropped and splashed onto the audience, Ms. Myers was revealed sitting nude in the tub.

As the stage lights dimmed and ad libs were traded, Mr. Mitchell was sent out to repair the damage.

A nervous technician brought up the stage lights too soon, and the audience roared as Mr. Mitchell's unscripted cameo appearance featured him with his arm immersed in water and a terrified look on his face.

His stage farewell occurred when Mr. Swann pressed him into a role at the last minute. With no facility for quickly learning lines, Mr. Mitchell had them taped to a whiskey bottle so that he was able to speak his lines while sipping ersatz whiskey.

Mr. Mitchell was born in Battle Creek, Mich., and raised in Catonsville. He was a 1941 graduate of Catonsville High School and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before enlisting in the Navy during World War II.

After serving in the South Pacific as a submariner, he completed his bachelor's degree at Maryland Institute, College of Art.

His 1952 marriage to the former Trudi Maier ended in divorce.

No services were held.

He is survived by his son, Richard Mark Mitchell of Baltimore; and longtime companion, Joseph Rupp of Baltimore.

Pub date: 04/09/96

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