Phoebe Brand, 96, an innovative actor and teacher


On Saturday evening, July 3, 2004, the actress Phoebe Brand died in St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. She was 96, a completely aware and vital 96, as this journalist, who had sat entranced six weeks earlier in her apartment on W. 43rd St., listening to her memories of the Group Theater, could tell you.

“I thought the building was coming down,” she’d said of the tumultuous, epoch-making Jan. 5, 1935, opening night of Clifford Odets’s “Waiting for Lefty” at the old Civic Repertory Theater on W. 14th. “When we [actors] went out on the street, people came up to us and asked: ‘How could you do that?’ ” — that is, be so real on stage.

All that and much more about the founding of the group that changed the face and guts of American theater went into the interview with Ms. Brand that ran in this newspaper’s June 16 issue.

What also went into that story was the 15 or 20 years of blacklisting that all but blotted out the careers of Phoebe Brand and her husband Morris Carnovsky in the 1950s and ’60s. They survived by teaching others about acting.

“To find yourself is the hardest thing to do,” said she who as a young woman had starred in “Awake and Sing,” “Golden Boy,” “Johnny Johnson” and much else by the Group. “My students, when they find themselves — with simplicity — they don’t try to act. It’s not that they should do less. They should do more in a different direction.”

A memorial for Phoebe Brand is scheduled for 4 p.m., Thurs., July 22, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center. In charge of the arrangements is her friend and colleague Annie Occhiogrosso, founder of the American Players Theater in Spring Lake, Wisc., where Phoebe Brand and Morris Carnovsky appeared in and directed Chekhov’s “Ivanov” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

“I went to see her in the hospital on the Wednesday before she died,” Occhiogrosso said this week. “She was completely lively. She said: ‘Maybe I should gather my students and teach right here.’ ”

The general press was more than a week late in mentioning Phoebe Brand’s death and even the generally reliable Internet Movie Data Base, which did report her death, has the date wrong. I should think one blackout is enough in one lifetime. Salud, Phoebe Brand.