Eugene has lost one of the giants of our civic and performing arts life: Ed Ragozzino has passed away at the age of 79.
By Bob Keefer
Appeared in print: Sunday, Jan 31, 2010
Ed Ragozzino, whose lifelong passion for theater helped bring about the creation of Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts, died of cancer Saturday morning at Sacred Heart Medical Center at River Bend. He was 79.
Ragozzino taught high school and college drama in Eugene, directed local theater shows and worked as a professional voice talent and actor in movies, television and radio. He campaigned for years on behalf of the performing arts here in ways both political and personal.
“Ed had a vision in terms of bringing the performing arts to Eugene that was extraordinary,” said Eugene arts patron and longtime friend Hope Pressman. “And I admired the way he helped youngsters who didn’t even know they had talent to become confident of their own abilities and blossom.”
One of those youngsters was Julie Payne, a girl from Sweet Home who never imagined she might have an acting career until her family moved to Eugene in the early 1960s and she encountered a darkly good-looking, no-nonsense young drama teacher.
“We were all in love with Mr. Ragozzino,” she said. “He was handsome, funny, terrifying, inspiring and kindly. Everything he knew, he wanted to pass on to us.”
Payne, who now lives in Los Angeles, would go on from Eugene to work with the satirical performance group The Committee in San Francisco and to a Hollywood career in movies and television; her most recent role was as Larry David’s mother-in-law in the HBO improvisational series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“Once, he said, ‘You walk funny,’?” Payne recalled. “I was crushed, but he was right, and in a few years I fixed it.”
Early days in Eugene
Born and reared in San Mateo, Calif., Ragozzino came to Eugene in 1950 to attend the University of Oregon as a broadcasting major; he quickly began performing in plays in the theater department run by Horace Robinson.
During the Korean War he was drafted into the Army, which sent him to the Signal Corps’ motion picture center on Long Island, N.Y. There he made training films, working with such contemporaries as dramatist and author Ira Levin, and acted in three off-Broadway shows. He returned to Eugene in 1955 and completed a master’s degree the following year at the UO.
His first job after graduation was teaching drama at Eugene High School, now South Eugene High School. He also deejayed on local radio.
He developed the high school theater program here into a spectacular success, known especially for its musicals. A production of “Music Man,” for example, sold out four performances in the high school’s 2,000-seat auditorium.
“It was very prestigious to be in one of his high school productions. As I recall, he had about 200 students try out for ‘The Music Man,’ my first show, in 1963,” recalled Very Little Theatre veteran Scott Barkhurst, who was a student of Ragozzino’s at Eugene High from 1962 until 1964. “I’m not sure it’s accurate to say it was like being on the football team, but it probably carried as much social capital among the student body.”
In 1968, Ragozzino became head of the performing arts department at the brand-new Lane Community College, a job he held until 1986.
That year he founded the Eugene Festival of Musical Theater, an organization dedicated to producing professional musicals at the Hult. It staged shows like “Peter Pan,” “Hello Dolly” and “Cabaret” before succumbing, in 1995, to an era whose tastes ran to cable television and the new Internet more than to live musicals.
“Very much in control”
Ragozzino was a crisp professional at whatever he did, recalled Karen Scheeland, who taught in his theater department at LCC and later was general manager of EFMT.
“If Ed told you to do something, you didn’t question him. You just did it,” she said. “He was very much in control.”
“He expected and got from each person more than that person could give,” agreed Eugene Symphony violist Nathan Cammack, who was music director for many of Ragozzino’s shows over the years.
Ragozzino put on plays that were polished and precise, reflecting many hours of rehearsal and his confident director’s eye.
But it was for his role as a driving force behind building the Hult Center that Ragozzino will be best remembered.
In 1963 he approached David Sherman, a fellow teacher at Eugene High School.
“Ed got this twinkle in his eye,” Sherman recalls. “He asked, how would you like to do ‘My Fair Lady’? I said, ‘You’re crazy!’?”
The show raised $30,000 for the fledgling Lane County Auditorium Association, which was trying to build a new performance hall in town.
In all, Ragozzino would direct 10 Broadway musicals for the association, from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” to “Hello Dolly.” His summer shows packed audiences into the sweltering high school auditorium, the only venue in town big enough to hold the crowds of theater-goers.
The suffocating heat — the auditorium wasn’t air-conditioned — helped convince Eugene audiences that they needed a better place for live theater; the crowds who showed up anyway helped demonstrate that there was enough community support to warrant one.
After a number of unsuccessful efforts to pass a bond measure to finance it, Eugene voters eventually said yes, and the Hult opened in 1982.
Voice of TV, radio spots
Over the years Rag-ozzino had a second, less visible career as a national voice-over talent, occasional actor and even movie director.
He narrated radio and television spots for such clients as Soloflex, Subaru, National Geographic, The History Channel and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. He played a number of roles in movies, including that of a minister in the 2005 production “The Sisters” that was filmed partly in Cottage Grove.
And in 1977 he directed a film, “Sasquatch, the Legend of Bigfoot,” that starred Eugene actor George Lauris.
He is survived by two brothers, Aldo and John Ragozzino, both of Petaluma, Calif., and sisters Eleanor Butt, who lives in the San Francisco area, and Rita Baum, of Los Gatos, Calif.
He married his first wife, piano teacher Francis Baum, now Francis Geer, in Salem in 1952; they were later divorced. She survives along with their children, Laurabeth Wyatt of Tualatin; Kate Schafroth and her husband, Jack, of Tualatin; Matt Ragozzino and his wife, Chika, of Lake Oswego; and Julie Edwarzs and her husband, George, of La Habra Heights, Calif.
Ragozzino married his current wife, actress and former student Roxy Thomas, in 1977. She survives, along with their children, Elizabeth Allen and her husband, Josh, of Eugene, and John Ragozzino and his wife, Morgan, of Beaverton.
He had seven grandchildren.
A vigil will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, 1201 Satre St.; a more formal funeral mass will be held at the church at 11 a.m. Saturday.