Arts pioneer Frank Young built Theatre Under the Stars from the ground up.
By Andrew Edmonson
Frank Young, one of the founding fathers of the Houston arts scene who brought Houstonians hundreds of nights of free, joyous musical theater at Miller Outdoor Theater, died on September 20 in Palm Springs. He was 77.
In 1968, as a pre-med student working part-time at Houston Grand Opera and in the research department at Baylor, he decided to mount a production of Jules Stein’s Bells are Ringing, using an all-volunteer cast and orchestra at the recently opened Miller Outdoor Theater. He produced, directed, and conducted the show. The original opening night performance was rained out. But thousands turned out the next night, and a major Houston arts organization was born.
Working at first from his two-bedroom apartment, he grew Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) into one of Houston’s largest arts and cultural organizations, which today presents touring musicals and self-produced shows for tens of thousands of Texans each season in its stunning Hobby Center home in the Theater District.
Along the way, Young built a regional theater empire. In April 1985, he created the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) when the directors of 43 theatres and operas came together at TUTS to discuss the state of musical theatre in America. Today, NAMT numbers 160 member organizations.
Young was also committed to nurturing young musical theater artists. “In 1972, when TUTS opened the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, he was so passionate and so proud of being able to start a theater school to prepare the next generation,” remembers David Greiss, TUTS’s director of marketing and sales from 1997 to 2016.
“He truly was a pioneer, both in arts and in the gay community,” observed Broadway director Michael Wilson, who served as Alley Theatre associate director from 1990-1998.
In 1993, Young scored a major coup when he landed the out-of-town tryout of Disney’s blockbuster musical version of Beauty and the Beast before it debuted on Broadway in 1994, where it ran for five years.
A showman with a big, theatrical personality and a keen wit, he once confided to an interviewer, “You know the musical comedy, The Music Man, where Harold Hill comes to town? I sort of think that I’m a Harold Hill.” In that musical theater classic, Hill was a charismatic con man who dazzled an Iowa town by posing as a boys band organizer until he realized that he loved Marian the Librarian.
“I started out in Houston musicals as a dancer and a singer,” he told houstontheatre.com in a 1998 interview.
“And over the years, I have learned all the different skills. I also direct, I choreograph some of our shows. I conduct the orchestra frequently on our shows.
“So I’m sort of dangerous. I’m one of those that knows a little about a lot of things. Jack of all trades, and master of none. But, as I grew older, I realized that you put all those elements in a Broadway musical together, and that’s what a producer does.”
Young’s longtime companion, Jon Nelson, died shortly before Young in Palm Springs.