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Obituaries

Audrey Skirball-Kenis, 87; Diverse Philanthropist, Patron of the Theater

June 20, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Audrey Skirball-Kenis, a self-effacing daughter of privilege who loved horse racing and steered millions of philanthropic dollars to causes from the study of Jewish culture to the encouragement of new playwrights, died early Wednesday. She was 87 and died of natural causes, a spokeswoman for the family said.

Born Audrey Marx and raised in New York as the daughter of a banker, Skirball-Kenis moved to Southern California in the 1940s. After two brief marriages and divorces, she wed developer, film producer and philanthropist Jack Skirball, a union that lasted 38 years until his death in 1985.

Together they developed plans for his grandest philanthropic project, the construction of the Skirball Cultural Center above Brentwood, which opened in 1996.

"She had a verve and an imagination that were astounding," said Uri D. Herscher, founding president and chief executive of the center, who first met Skirball-Kenis in 1963.

When Skirball-Kenis dropped by the center to visit, "she would stop at every desk and have a conversation." Herscher said.

When other philanthropists visit, he added, "that doesn't often happen."

The Skirball Center was in many ways her husband's project, funded in large part through the New York-based foundation he created to channel philanthropic efforts.

But Herscher noted that its Jewish American emphasis very much reflected her view of the world.

"Audrey was a very proud American and a very proud person born of the Jewish tradition, and she always felt that there was a remarkable fit between the two, between democratic values and Jewish values," he said.

When the 1994 Northridge earthquake cut off power and telephone connection to the Skirball-Kenis condominium in Century City, Herscher recalled, Audrey, then 79, scared up a propane camp stove and made pancakes.

On a Caribbean cruise in 1996, the weather turned rough, the swells grew, and "everyone on the ship was ill but Audrey," Herscher said.

"Not only did she not become ill or frightened, she tended to the other five of us, and finished [reading] two novels."

Over the last 15 years, Herscher said, the Skirball Foundation's gifts to the cultural center have totaled $60 million to $70 million.

In 1987, she married Charles Kenis, an importer of French cognac and wines.

Together they operated the 3+U Stable Co., which included more than two dozen horses. The couple frequently appeared at the Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar racetracks.

Among Skirball-Kenis' other charitable involvements: the New York University Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, the Los Angeles Music Center and the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies in England.

Meanwhile, as a trustee of the Skirball Foundation, she helped direct more than $20 million to the A.S.K. Theater Projects, a nonprofit organization created in 1989 to promote the creation and production of new theatrical works. Among the many playwrights and productions aided by Skirball-Kenis' largess were Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" (winner of a 1993 Pulitzer Prize) and Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog" (winner of the 2002 Pulitzer).

Gordon Davidson, artistic director/producer of the Center Theatre Group (which operates the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum) credited Skirball-Kenis for giving both generously and efficiently--sending funds not only to individuals but to institutions that could make room for new work.

"It was the best kind of generosity. It was an endorsement of what you were dreaming and imagining," Davidson said.

Los Angeles-based playwright David Rambo recalled that he was still a moonlighting real estate agent when A.S.K. Theater Projects began supporting his work in 1996. Since then, the organization has played a role in six of his plays, through sponsored readings, playwrights' retreats and other measures. The most recent work, still in progress, is a commission for the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

"Of all the things to do with money, to develop playwrights is wonderfully mad," Rambo said. "It made the difference in my career. It really did."

Skirball-Kenis never worked in the theater, she told a Times reporter in 1997, but from an early age she realized that "I was very good at sitting in the back."

She also sat on the board of the Los Angeles Opera. "She's been part of this company since we began" in the 1980s, recalled Elizabeth Kennedy, the opera's director of administration. "She was one of our first million-dollar donors."

Kym Eisner, executive director of A.S.K. Theater Projects, described Skirball-Kenis as "elegantly bold, and she always spoke her mind, in a gracious way. And she was absolutely beautiful. Gray hair, blue eyes. She was probably about 5 feet tall, and thin.

"She picked out flowers for the living room [the day before her death]. They went to the market and picked flowers. Cream roses. Yellow calla lilies and some stargazers lilies, and she arranged them beautifully."

Even though the Skirball Foundation gave $3 million in 1995 to see the Geffen Playhouse through its fledgling years, remembered producing director Gil Cates, "In all the shows that we've done here, she never volunteered her opinion. But if I asked her, boy, she told me. She liked unpretentious theater, theater that made you laugh or cry, theater that she understood." Now, Cates said, "the theater is going to miss her. I don't mean the Geffen, I mean the theater."

Skirball-Kenis is survived by her husband; daughters, Sally and Aggie, both of Southern California; and stepchildren, Stephen of London and Andrea of Beverly Hills.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Hillside Memorial Park Chapel.

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