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Chuck Estes, 59; Eclectic Composer of Music for Theater

April 19, 2006|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Chuck Estes, who wrote music for stage productions at South Coast Repertory Theater, the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove, the Court Theatre in West Hollywood and others, died March 26. He was 59.

His wife, Nancy Estes, said he died of complications from heart disease at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.

A longtime Fullerton resident, Estes also helped lead a successful effort to save the local Fox Theatre complex from being torn down. The 1920s-era property was purchased in early 2005 by preservationists who are restoring it.

As a composer, Estes said, he was most inspired by the music of John Cage and Steve Reich, along with works by Brian Eno. But he created theater music of every description.

He recorded his music, often in a garage, playing the keyboard as part of a musical ensemble. His soundtrack for a play would an overture, background music for certain scenes and interludes.

Estes was composer in residence for the Grove Shakespeare Festival through the 1980s and wrote music for other Shakespearean productions as well as modern plays. He won a number of Drama-Logue awards.

"Chuck could write any kind of music. He did weird avant-garde stuff, semi-pop stuff, jazz and everything else," said David Porter, a sound engineer who worked with Estes on productions for the Grove Shakespeare Festival and elsewhere.

He didn't limit himself to instrumental music. For a South Coast Repertory production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" in the mid-1980s, Estes recorded choral voices to suggest the sounds of a forest, the play's director, Lee Shallat Chemel, said this week. Estes and Chemel also collaborated on productions for the Grove Shakespeare Festival, including a Kabuki-style production of "Macbeth" in the early 1980s.

"Collaboration with Chuck was a loose and improvisational affair," Chemel said. "He put up no barriers. He was a brilliant composer and a down to earth, funny guy. We called him Chuckles."

Estes also worked with director Jules Aaron on several West Hollywood theater productions, including a 1991 staging of Laura Shamas' "Lady-Like" at the Court Theatre.

"A lot of composers tend to repeat themselves," Aaron said. "Chuck was always original. He was not doing a rehash of something he'd written earlier."

Born Charles Byron Estes on June 17, 1946, in Aurora, Colo., he moved to Southern California with his parents as a boy. He earned a bachelor's degree at what is now Albertson College of Idaho in Caldwell and earned a master's in music at Cal State Fullerton.

Along with composing music for theater, he played keyboards with several groups, including the PowerVac band and the Paul Zen Quintet, performing in church halls and at parties.

In addition to his wife, Estes is survived by three children; his mother, Lillian Estes; and a sister, Marie. Two of his children are from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. He also is survived by grandchildren.

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