Dale E. Fern, 71, dancer, actor, drama teacher

July 06, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Dale Edward Fern, whose love of dance and theater led him from his prairie home to the lights of Broadway and then to Baltimore as a drama teacher and director, died June 24 of a stroke at Englewood Hospital in Englewood, N.J. He was 71.

Mr. Fern, formerly of Charles Village, had lived since 1992 at the Actors' Fund Nursing Home in Englewood.

Before coming to Baltimore in 1966 to study in Elliott Coleman's writing seminar at the Johns Hopkins University, he spent 20 years in New York as a dancer and actor and appeared in the original 1947 production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "Brigadoon."

He was hired in 1966 to teach and direct plays at Mount St. Agnes College, where he quickly developed a reputation as an exacting taskmaster, a perfectionist with a fondness for the plays of Eugene O'Neill.

"I was this little 17-year-old girl from Our Lady of Pompeii Parochial School when I first met him at Mount St. Agnes because I wanted to study theater," said Celia Genuardi Rocca, an English teacher and theater director at City College.

"Out stepped this imposing man dressed in black with white hair and smoking a cigarette. I traveled from East Baltimore to West Baltimore and, because of him, entered a different world."

Mr. Fern also directed plays forthe Vagabonds, and his 1981 production of O'Neill's "Strange Interlude," a once-controversial play about a woman's sexual relationships with three men, was its first Baltimore production since the Theater Guild's 1930 production at Ford's Theater.

John Van Meter, instructor and director of theater at McDonogh School, said Mr. Fern "had a discerning eye and ear, and was fastidious with his work. He was a one-man show and did it all."

Mr. Fern who had a penchant for wearing black, "was a physically imposing man with a sonorous, mellifluous voice that was very deep and free of any Midwestern twang," Mr. Van Meter said.

nTC Mr. Fern's favorite saying, Mr. Van Meter said, was, "Theater always changes lives 99.9 percent for the better."

After Mount St. Agnes merged with Loyola College in 1971, Mr. Fern inaugurated Theater Loyola, which ended in 1976. He later moved the group to the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, where the group was renamed Theater Incarnate and continued performing through the late 1970s.

Mr. Fern was born and raised in Ottumwa, Iowa, where he got his introduction to the works of O'Neill at the local library, reading "Strange Interlude."

"He was smitten, and it started him on his lifelong O'Neill quest," Mr. Van Meter said.

Mr. Fern eventually became a friend of O'Neill's wife, Carlotta Monterey. The friendship blossomed when he suggested a dance version of the playwright's "Mourning Becomes Electra," which he succeeded in getting performed and in which he appeared.

A frequent guest in the O'Neills' home in New York, he carried on a lively correspondence with them and collaborated with Mrs. O'Neill on a biography of her husband, "Nigh Unto Hell," which was not published. Mr. Fern later donated his O'Neill correspondence and a number of personal items to the Yale University Library.

Mr. Fern's high school English teacher, Esther Jamison, took an interest in his desire to be a writer and actor.

"I saw great promise in him as a writer, and, of course, he later became a splendid director. I suppose that was the peak of his life experience," Miss Jamison, 94, said yesterday in an interview from Seattle, where she lives.

Mr. Fern was profoundly influenced by dancers in touring companies that performed in his hometown and, later, by Martha Graham, with whom he studied; Ted Shawn; Ruth St. Denis; and Robert Joffrey.

In drama, he was especially moved by Katharine Cornell's legendary performance in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street."

He touched on the experience in 1979 while reviewing a biography of the actress: "In remote places where theater as a light had fallen into darkness, her visit was an exception, something to look forward to, to take life from, and to remember."

Margaret Sullivan, a former student and now a producer at Maryland Public Television, said Mr. Fern "left home for good in 1941 after a family dispute erupted over his plans to go to Chicago to hear Kirsten Flagstad, the Metropolitan Opera soprano's final concert before returning to her home in Nazi-occupied Norway. It was a decision that changed his life. It was something he had to do."

He cited the stage and screen works of Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud, Jean-Louis Barrault, the Comedie Francaise and the Swedish theater as influences on his work.

He despised and ridiculed Method acting.

"You can't play King Lear by thinking about your dad," he once wrote. "Nobody in Baltimore has a father like King Lear."

His final theatrical collaboration was in 1984, when he helped Mr. Van Meter organize and present an O'Neill festival at McDonogh.

"His last 10 years were fallow, as his physical condition deteriorated. I think most of his activity took place only in his mind's eye," Mr. Van Meter said.

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

There are no survivors.

Pub Date: 7/06/96

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