Roundabout’s Gene Feist, and his Theatre, Had Chelsea Roots

Photo by Charly Sparks Roundabout Theatre Company founder Gene Feist, 91, was a Penn South tenant for 51 years.
Photo by Natasha Marco
Roundabout Theatre Company founder Gene Feist, 91, was a Penn South tenant for 51 years.

Gene Feist, Founding Director of the Roundabout Theatre Company, died after a short illness on March 17, at the age of 91.

A fifth-generation native New Yorker and a second-generation Chelsea resident, he served in World War II, studied theater arts at Carnegie-Mellon University and later became Artistic Director of the New Theater in Nashville, Tennessee.

Upon returning to New York City, Feist became an original cooperator in Penn South when, in 1962, he moved into Building 2 with his wife, Kathe Feist (an actress who performed as Elizabeth Owens). His mother also lived in Penn South. Feist remained in the co-op for 51 years, before moving to the Lillian Booth Actors Home (Englewood, New Jersey) in 2013.

In 1965, Gene and Kathe Feist started the Roundabout Theatre as a 150-seat space in the basement of what was then the Penn South supermarket on 26th Street and Eighth Avenue (still in use, as the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre). Later, they converted what was then a “blue movie” house on 23rd Street between Eighth and Ninth (now the SVA Theater).

While the Roundabout Theater Company was becoming established, Feist worked as a drama teacher in the New Rochelle public school system. After the Roundabout became a local institution, Feist continued teaching as the head of the Roundabout Conservatory and Ensemble Company drama school.

During his almost 30-year tenure as the Roundabout’s Artistic Director, Feist produced or directed over 150 plays. Under his leadership the Roundabout Theater Company attracted the largest subscriber base of any theatrical institution in the League of Regional Theaters. It is now regarded as the nation’s most influential not-for-profit theatre company, whose five stages (on and off Broadway) reach an audience of over 700,000 annually. Over the years, Roundabout has been recognized with 29 Tonys, 41 Drama Desks, 50 Outer Critics Circle, nine Obie and five Olivier Awards.

As a playwright, Feist wrote or adapted 15 plays, including “The Lady from Maxim’s” and “James Joyce’s Dublin.” He was named a Lifetime Tony Awards voter and was the recipient of numerous theater awards — including the 1996 Lucille Lortel Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Feist was predeceased by his wife. He is survived by daughters Nicole and Gena, and two grandchildren (all current Chelsea residents). A memorial service will be announced at a later date.