Bennett Bradley of Hollywood's Fountain Theatre won awards for directing and producing plays that burrowed deeply into the African American experience, but friends and colleagues remembered Monday that he savored and contributed to nearly all of the arts. Bradley, 59, was found stabbed to death early Saturday evening at his Mid-Wilshire apartment. Police are investigating Bradley's death as a robbery and murder.
When he didn't show up to lead a 5 p.m. rehearsal of the Fountain's West Coast premiere of "The Ballad of Emmett Till," the show's stage manager went to his home and found his body, said Stephen Sachs, the company's co-artistic director.
Bradley had been working with a particular passion on the drama by Chicago playwright Ifa Bayeza about the 1955 murder of a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was killed for supposedly whistling at a white woman while he was visiting Mississippi.
The play was first staged in 2008 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and ran 2 1/2 hours. Over the last year, Bradley had been working with Bayeza to strip the show down to a fast-paced 90 minutes, played by five actors instead of 13.
"It was Ben's passion that convinced me to do this play," said Sachs.
The show, scheduled to open Feb. 6, will go on. Shirley Jo Finney, who worked closely with Bradley on other Fountain productions, will take over as director. Bradley came to the Fountain in 1993 as a telemarketer; he previously had done subscription sales for the Los Angeles Theatre Center. But as is customary on the tightly budgeted small-theater scene, those willing and able can play many roles. Bradley, who had earned a theater degree at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis., became a key Fountain employee on both the business and creative sides. His role running the box office and greeting audiences made him "our public face in many ways," said Simon Levy, producing director.
Bradley's highlights as a director include his 2006 staging of August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," which scored Ovation awards for best direction and best production. His 2008 staging of Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" earned best director and best production honors from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.
"He took on some of the most challenging and sometimes controversial works," said Shay Wafer, former managing director of L.A.'s Cornerstone Theater Company, and now vice president of programs at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. Bradley's staging of "Joe Turner" was "tremendous in scope and content," Wafer said, even on the Fountain's intimate stage.
Adolphus Ward, 74, who played Bynum, the folksy sage of "Joe Turner," said he and Bradley became friends more than 30 years ago, when both were working in Milwaukee theater. They reconnected after Ward came to L.A. in 2001. Bradley was "the kind of guy who left all the doors open to the creative talent coming out of the actors," he said.
Bradley also became known for his cooking and hospitality.
Ward said that the first step in a Bradley-led rehearsal process was a gathering at the director's home to read through the script -- and to devour a huge meal he'd prepare himself. Opening nights at the Fountain, Bradley would prepare a buffet for more than 100 people -- the entire cast, crew and audience -- and serve in the upstairs lounge.
"We would get calls from audience members, 'What's Ben cooking for opening night?' " Sachs recalled.
Bradley's large apartment housed a wide-ranging music collection, Ward said, and at least 200 prints, paintings and pieces of sculpture. Ward said Bradley recently had told him that he dreamed of opening an art gallery after his theatrical career wound down.
Bradley also produced, with Fountain co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor, the "Forever Flamenco" series presented at the theater twice a month.
Sachs said that Bradley would be buried in Baltimore, where he grew up and where his mother, stepfather and siblings live. The Fountain has established a Ben Bradley Memorial Fund. After first raising money to help offset funeral expenses, Sachs said, it will become a fund for new play development at the theater.