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Jack Nakano, 75, dies; educator was youth-oriented theater arts guru

January 30, 2009|Dennis McLellan

Jack Nakano, an educator who launched the nonprofit Youth Theatre Productions in Santa Barbara in the early 1960s and later founded and was artistic director of the Hollywood-based California Youth Theatre and YouTHeatre-America!, has died. He was 75.

Nakano, whose long career as a youth-oriented theater arts guru spanned five decades and touched the lives of performers such as Jack Black and America Ferrera, died of heart failure Jan. 15 at the VA Hospital in West Los Angeles, said theatrical producer Joe Gunches, a friend.

"Jack was a tireless educator who loved musical theater and tried to inspire a love of this great American art form in his students," producer-director Taylor Hackford, who knew Nakano from his junior high and high school days in Santa Barbara, said in an e-mail. "He was a genuine Santa Barbara pioneer educator/producer."

Nakano was a performing-arts teacher at La Cumbre Junior High School in Santa Barbara in 1962 when he joined other local drama teachers to create the summer theater program that became the long-running Youth Theatre Productions in Santa Barbara.

Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Randolph Mantooth and the four Bottoms brothers -- Timothy, Joseph, Samuel and Benjamin -- are among the young students in the program in the 1960s and '70s who went on to acting careers.

"It really was my foundation for a career as a professional actor," said Timothy Bottoms, who appeared in his first Youth Theatre Production in the mid-'60s, when he was 13. "It would never have happened without Jack Nakano -- and that goes for a whole bunch of actors."

Stoltz said at least half of the 35 plays and musicals he appeared in as a teenager in Santa Barbara in the 1970s before going to college were with Nakano's Youth Theatre Productions.

"I'm one of the many people who will be forever grateful for the love and respect of theater that he engendered in so many," Stoltz said. "He was very passionate about the theater, and it affected a lot of people."

As a theater arts instructor at Santa Barbara High School from 1964 to 1978, Nakano took a new approach to student productions that captured the attention of Dan Sullivan, then The Times' drama critic.

Although Equity actors had been appearing in college productions for several seasons, Sullivan reported in 1970, "the Santa Barbara experiment marks the first time they have performed with high school actors."

It began in 1968 with a Santa Barbara High School production of "Life With Father," starring Leon Ames and Lurene Tuttle and supported by student actors. A later on-campus production of "Winesburg, Ohio" featured a mix of students, with Eva Marie Saint under the direction of her husband, Jeffrey Hayden.

After spending a year in England on a Fulbright teaching grant in 1973, Nakano created Gazebo Theater One, his first off-campus venture into production. He also headed a company of young mimes known as Les Masques Blancs.

In 1980, a year after the curtain fell on Youth Theatre Productions in Santa Barbara, Nakano moved south.

From 1984 to 1988, he was chairman of the drama department and taught theater at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica.

He also focused on his second nonprofit theater arts program for young people, California Youth Theatre, which he once described as "a grass-roots effort for the arts, covering all aspects of performing."

After operating in various venues, California Youth Theatre moved into a permanent home in the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood in 2000.

In a 1986 interview with The Times, Nakano discussed the importance of exposing young people to the creative arts.

"I think we should accept the fact that we're no longer pioneers," he said. "We've reached the Pacific Ocean. It's time we develop the character of our young people. They must have a sense of the arts. They must have sensitivity."

In 2004, Nakano left California Youth Theatre, which closed about two years later.

But in 2006, he launched YouTHeatre-America!, a nonprofit national theater arts program for young people.

Nakano, whose father was Japanese and mother was French, was born in London on Oct. 28, 1933.

During World War II, he witnessed German bombing raids on London. After his father, who managed a Japanese bank, was called back to his homeland, Nakano also experienced the war while living in Japan.

Nakano, who later served a stint in the U.S. Army as an entertainment specialist for USO shows, earned bachelor's and master's degrees from UC Santa Barbara and began teaching in Santa Barbara in 1959.

Nakano, whose YouTHeatre-America! is expected to continue operating, had no immediate surviving family members. But as his friend Gunches recalled this week, Nakano didn't view it that way.

When Gunches visited Nakano in the hospital for what was to be the last time he saw him, a nurse asked Gunches if he was one of Nakano's children.

"I replied, 'No, he has no children,' " Gunches recalled. "To which Jack chimed in, 'I have 50,000 children.' "

Details of a memorial service at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Hollywood are pending.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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