Obituaries

Jan Geidt, a force behind the American Repertory Theater, dies at 80

09geidt -- Jan Geidt, obituary photo. (Handout)
Handout
Jan Geidt.

Those who worked at the American Repertory Theater might be forgiven for not remembering Jan Geidt’s official title because she did a little of everything. Make that a lot, actually.

“She was the all-around organizer. Nothing really happened without her having organized it, laid down the rules, and given us our marching orders,” said Robert Brustein, ART’s founding director. Her role, he added, “didn’t have a limitation on it, which is why I can’t define it.”

Cherry Jones, a Tony and Emmy award-winning actress who starred in many ART productions, put it simply: Mrs. Geidt was “the grease that made every wheel turn.”

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There were endless wheels to keep in motion at the company’s Cambridge theater and on the road when productions were staged elsewhere. Through it all, Mrs. Geidt somehow managed to be everywhere. “She was truly ubiquitous in the best sense of that word, and ranged over many, many areas — PR, marketing, casting, and all sorts of other things,” said Rob Orchard, ART’s former executive director.

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Mrs. Geidt, who with her husband, the late actor Jeremy Geidt, turned their Cambridge house into a home-away-from-the-floodlights for the company, died Feb. 24 of complications from a stroke and dementia. She was 80 and had moved from Cambridge to Wescosville, Pa., to live in the same community as her daughter, Jennifer Holmwood.

At the Geidts’ Garden Street house in Cambridge, which they chose for its proximity to the Loeb Drama Center that is ART’s main home, “her hospitality was legendary,” said Orchard, who also founded and is a creative consultant to Arts Emerson at Emerson College.

“The Geidts were the only people in the world who kept a frozen goose in their freezer, just in case they had to throw a gigantic dinner party,” said Joan Moynagh, who formerly worked with the couple at ART.

Gatherings large and small were commonplace at the couple’s home, and Mrs. Geidt made all her efforts seem effortless — putting on a Thanksgiving dinner for nearly 40 with the ease others might bring to inviting a few actors over after a production. And she did that, too.

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She and Jeremy raised two daughters while Mrs. Geidt presided over years of productions, many featuring her husband. At times, though, it seemed as if all members of the repertory company were also their children.

“I arrived at the Loeb Theater in the summer of 1980,” Jones said. “The minute I walked into that building I was introduced to Jan and Jeremy. And practically from that moment on I became a member of their family, and they became part of my family.”

Moynagh, an independent fund-raising consultant and a founding director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, said “It seems so unusual now that there would be a person who was so senior and so responsible for the company, and yet who also felt it was very important that we were all family, and who just really watched over us very intently.”

Mrs. Geidt was so attentive to details that she often paid advance visits to cities where ART would soon stage performances. She scouted out restaurants willing to stay open late for post-show dinners and sought places to stay where the company would take up most of the rooms.

“When she could, she would find these smaller boutique hotels with a little character,” Orchard said, “so when we woke up in the morning, we knew we were in Paris.”

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The younger of two siblings, Jan Graham was born and grew up in Little Rock, the daughter of Joseph Graham and the former Nadine Bell.

Her mother had long disliked shortened versions of her own name that friends coined and decided to spare her daughter that experience. “She gave mom the simplest name known to man because she hated the idea of nicknames,” said Mrs. Geidt’s daughter Sophie of New York City.

Jan Graham’s father ran a clothing store in Little Rock, where she did some modeling. As a girl and on through graduation from high school, she “was fiercely intelligent,” her daughter said. Accepted to attend Wellesley College, Mrs. Geidt returned home at the outset of her sophomore year, after her mother died.

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Arkansas Fayetteville with a bachelor’s degree in history, then worked in Washington, D.C., for US Senator J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat who was the longest-serving chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

While in Washington, she was seeing the British comedic actor Dudley Moore, who took her to a performance of the British theater group The Establishment, which was on a US tour. At that show she met Jeremy Geidt, a member of the ensemble. She soon became a couple with Geidt. He died in 2013.

Asked once why she left Dudley Moore for Jeremy Geidt, “She said, ‘No one made me laugh the way your father makes me laugh,’ ” Sophie recalled.

The couple moved to New York, where Jeremy met Brustein and became part of the Yale Repertory Theatre, which Brustein founded. Mrs. Geidt began working with the company and ended up running its press department. The Geidts stayed with Brustein when he moved to Cambridge to found the American Repertory Theater.

Having commuted to Yale from a New Haven suburb for years, “they were determined when they came to Cambridge that they would live within walking distance of the Loeb,” Orchard said. That turned out to be a godsend for generations of actors who performed in the ART’s shows.

“It was a home of mutual respect and unconditional love,” Jones said. “The influence they had on hundreds of us cannot be overstated. All the girls at the ART wanted to grow up to be a Jan. She was so elegant and hilarious, and always looked like a million bucks, but there was not a judgmental bone in her body when it came to her ART kids.”

As Mrs. Geidt went about her numerous duties for the company, “there wasn’t a moment of the day she wasn’t doing something for all of us, and having seemingly the time of her life doing it,” Jones added. “On opening night, none of us could have gone on had we not known that Jan was standing at a discreet distance from the last back row of the Loeb, willing us, with love, to survive another night at the ART.”

A service will be announced for Mrs. Geidt who, in addition to her daughters Sophie and Jennifer, leaves a stepdaughter, Lucy Durman of Etchingham, England, and five grandchildren.

“She was so kind and so loving to everybody she met,” Sophie said.

And such was the case even if she wasn’t terribly fond of everyone she met. “She didn’t suffer fools,” Jones recalled, laughing, “but she was always infinitely polite to fools.”

Mrs. Geidt and her husband “really changed the nature of the atmosphere here in Cambridge by the power of their personalities and the warmth of their hospitality,” Brustein said.

“If there were such a thing as state funerals in the theater,” Jones said, “they both definitely would have been buried in the cathedral.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.