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Robert Zentis; Acclaimed Theater Designer

November 05, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert W. Zentis, one of the West Coast's foremost theater designers, has died at the age of 61.

Zentis, who worked mainly in small theaters, most recently was resident set designer at the 78-seat Fountain Theatre. He died Oct. 26 in Los Angeles, the theater announced Monday.

He designed and lighted as many as 25 plays, operas and industrial shows a year and won so many awards from Drama-Logue (more than 30) and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (four) that he stopped framing them. Among the honors was the prestigious Margaret Hartford Award for long-term contribution to smaller theater, an award seldom given to designers.

"I like to keep very busy," Zentis told The Times in 1994, explaining his preference for small theaters. "I don't want to not work. And the creative process is the same no matter where you're working. I'm solving the same kinds of problems in the same kinds of ways whether the show has a stage budget of $3,000 or millions of dollars."

Zentis referred to his work not as mere jobs but as "a series of challenges."

Explaining how he approached his job, he said, "[First], understand what the play is trying to say, and then find the environment (set) and a way of looking at it (lights) that will enhance that message and propel it into the audience's minds."

He taught his art at Occidental College, UCLA, USC and the High School of Performing Art.

"The more that I design, the more I think it true that set design is a little like poetry," he said in 1994. "When you write a novel, impressions are made with a lot of words. But when you're trying to do haiku, every syllable and word conveys a lot more than it might in another context."

Zentis grew up in the farming community of McKean, Pa., and studied playwriting at Yale Drama School. But he switched to theater design when he attended Northwestern University.

He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s as resident set designer at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Zentis also painted, and his work was recently exhibited at the Valenti Gallery in West Hollywood.

His final set design was for "Orpheus Descending," which is playing at the Fountain Theatre. The design has been nominated for an Ovation Award.

That design will be the setting for a celebration of his life scheduled for 11 a.m. Nov. 17, at the Fountain Theatre.

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