William R. Bruce, whose stage productions revitalized the Coronado Playhouse in the late 1970s, died of a heart attack Sunday while swimming on a weekend visit to Santa Catalina Island. He would have been 44 next month.
Bruce, an accomplished director, designer and actor, won critical acclaim for his work at San Diego theaters, including the Old Globe Theatre, where he received an Atlas Award in 1973 for his performance in "And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little."
But it was as artistic director of the Coronado Playhouse from 1976 to 1980 that Bruce made a significant contribution to San Diego's arts. Working with his wife, Trina Ciuffo, a costume designer, Bruce changed the Coronado theater's reputation from an amateur venue for light comedy into one of the area's top stages.
In Coronado, Bruce attracted a dedicated cadre of actors and technicians who worked without pay at the bayside theater. As a director, he had equal success with drama, comedy, farce and musical theater.
Bruce earned rave reviews for a range of plays, including "A Streetcar Named Desire," "The Miracle Worker," "Inherit the Wind," "A Flea in Her Ear," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and a bitter, little-known drama called "Ladies of the Alamo."
His successes at Coronado were all the more impressive because the plays were performed on a tiny stage with a pole standing in the middle.
Bruce left the playhouse in 1980 to become artistic director of the new Old Town Opera House, where he and his wife worked for a year before leaving to work in Chicago and New York.
For the last three years, Bruce lived in Northridge, where he was vice president and graphics designer for the Angeles Corp.
Bruce is survived by his wife; his parents, William and Helen Bruce of Bloomington, Ind.; four daughters, Melissa Turley of Palm Springs, Monica Holter of Columbus, Ohio, and Danielle and Nicole of Northridge, and one grandchild.
There will be a memorial service at noon Saturday at the First Christian Church of North Hollywood.