Charles Youmans, a South Loop resident, passed away on July 24 after a long illness.
A man of the theater, Mr. Youmans was recognizable and seen by countless thousands each season, though not onstage. As house manager at Lyric Opera of Chicago for more than 30 years, he greeted patrons with a warm and welcoming smile, whether they were first-time visitors or longtime attendees.
Mr. Youmans was responsible for the safety and operation of the auditorium side of the proscenium.
To Lyric Opera patrons, Charles Youmans was the face of Lyric. Before each performance, one could find him standing behind the ticket takers, concentrating on the information coming to him on his walkie-talkie earpiece, while also constantly checking around to ensure that all was going smoothly.
Through three Lyric administrations, he never missed a performance, and was never late, even on a Sunday matinee that coincided with the Chicago Marathon. Most of the audience was late, and that day probably set the record for hold time on the curtain as the staff tried to get as many patrons as possible into the house.
Mr. Youmans spent many hours at Lyric for student backstage tours, student matinees, and Guild Board backstage tours. Some days Mr. Youmans would arrive around 7:30 a.m. for student backstage tours. He always stopped to buy coffee for his backstage tours usher partner Del. He had to wait until the last busload of students left, rush home for a quick nap and a bite to eat, then dash back again to Lyric around 6 p.m. for the evening performance.
He was always at special events such as the Wine Auction and the Lyric Guild Board Fantasy of the Opera gala, a popular fundraising event. Since the law requires a house manager be present when the house is open to the public, the advent of Lyric’s restaurants in 2009 demanded he be there at 4:30 p.m. when the house opened to admit patrons to the restaurants. So, he was often at the opera house from 7:30 a.m. until after midnight.
Mr. Youmans had an excellent relationship with Ardis Kranik (Lyric’s general director 1981-96), who fully appreciated his theater management experience, knowledge of the building’s foibles and issues, and competence in running the front-of-house operation. When she came down from the Graham Room before each performance, she would give Mr. Youmans a thumbs up/thumbs down.
If he gave her the thumbs up, she would nod and proceed to the theater. If he gave her a thumbs down, she would come over to him and ask if she could help. Very rarely did he need to take it up on it, but the genuine offer was always there.
Danny Newman, Lyric’s press agent and public relations counsel, said that he brought the subscribers in, and Mr. Youmans helped to keep them there. According to a long-time subscriber, Mr. Youmans “was part of the pleasure of having Lyric season tickets.”
Mr. Youmans was known for his capable management style—reflecting his degrees in drama and theater management. He was loved for his winning smile and ability to hold listeners’ attention with his repertoire of stories.
When Lyric purchased the opera house in 1993, Mr. Youmans was running a British American Drama Academy (BADA) program at Stanford University. Lyric called Mr. Youmans to advise him of the news, but he was away from the office so, one of the instructors on the program answered the phone and said, “This is Richard Dreyfuss, can I take a message for him?”
With a changing leadership and times, Mr. Youmans was compelled to retire before the start of the 2015-16 season at Lyric. The response from Lyric patrons was so overwhelming that Mr. Youmans was subsequently rehired as a consultant for several months.
After leaving Lyric he still wanted to be in the theater so he applied to Broadway in Chicago as an usher. Broadway in Chicago wanted to make him a manager. “No thanks,” Mr. Youmans said. “I’ve had enough insults and champagne thrown at me during my career. I just want to be in the theater as an usher.” Of course, since the entire ushering staff knew of his background, he often ended up performing management tasks anyway.
Mr. Youmans was born in 1943, and his roots were in downstate Marseilles, IL, where he grew up and launched his theater training with the Valley Circle Theater. He moved to Chicago in 1962 and a year later met his future wife, Susan Kryl, who had just arrived from England to start a new life in the U.S.
As she recalled, “We met courtesy of AT&T. I had a telephone connected as soon as I moved into an apartment—no mobile phones then. I knew few people in Chicago, but the phone kept ringing. It was a lovely lady asking for ‘Buddy’ After several calls, I finally asked her who Buddy was. She replied, ‘Charles Youmans. I’m his mother.’ I checked for his apartment number and knocked on the door. I said, ‘I’m Susan and I live downstairs. Call your mother.’”
Over the next several years Mr. Youmans pursued his studies in San Francisco. Mr. Youmans earned a BA and MA in drama and theater management from San Francisco State University; concurrently he was active with the American Conservatory Theater and gained practical experience with acting and technical theater and management. ACT produced Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra simultaneously. Mr. Youmans played supporting roles in both productions.
At ACT, he worked with actress Kathryn Crosby, wife of Bing Crosby, and she invited Mr. Youmans many of her colleagues to Christmas at the Crosbys’ home.
In the early 1970s Mr. Youmans returned to Chicago and worked with the Goodman Theatre in both management and acting. He and Kryl reconnected in 1979 and married in 1981.
Throughout his six years as house manager of the Shubert Theatre, actors, company managers, and stage managers alike all appreciated the efficiency with which the house was run. The extended run of Cats was at the Shubert in the mid-1980s. The entire cast came home with Mr. Youmans one night after the show to celebrate his birthday.
Kryl recalled, “As we lit the candles on the cake, around midnight, the cast of Cats sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in full voice. We threw open the balcony door to share it with our neighbors and despite the hour, there was great appreciation from folks on the surrounding balconies.”
At the Shubert, Mr. Youmans led a team that received compliments from Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Carol Channing, and Mary Martin. Burton declared that Mr. Youmans was “the best front-of-house man I have ever worked with.”
Jim Belushi was starring in the 1982 run of Pirates of Penzance at the Shubert when his brother John died unexpectedly at 33. Mr. Youmans went to the Shubert immediately to console Jim Beslushi and to assure him that they could postpone the evening performance. Despite this offer, Jim went on that night and never missed a performance.
Jim was overwhelmed with the compassion and sensitivity with which Mr. Youmans managed that sad time for him. Jim’s mother Agnes Belushi was especially grateful, writing in May 1982, “You’ve been so kind and generous to me and my family. I’ll never forget you for your thoughtfulness.”
In addition to his theatrical work in Chicago, for 23 years, Mr. Youmans was on the administrative team for the British American Drama Academy (BADA) Midsummer in Oxford Program. The program is designed for serious actors over the age of 18 and focuses on British acting techniques with an emphasis on Shakespeare. Participants work and live alongside the faculty at Balliol College, Oxford. The faculty consists of leading British theater practitioners and faculty from top American graduate programs and is run in association with the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale.
In 1990, BADA presented a Midsummer in London program featuring a festival of international theater training with Berliner Ensemble, Moscow Arts Theatre, Teatro di Roma, and Chicago’s
Steppenwolf Theater Company. In 2006, BADA expanded the Midsummer in Oxford Program to include the Midsummer Conservatory Program, designed to help students 16-to-18 years old develop their skills in the acting process, analysis, and critical thinking, to help them meet the challenges of applying for college or drama school. BADA appointed Mr. Youmans as the administrative lead on the program.
There were two additional BADA programs with which Mr. Youmans was involved. One was Midsummer at Stanford, on the campus of Stanford University in 1993 and 1994. The faculty included Marsha Mason, David Ogden Stiers, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Asner, Anne Jackson (accompanied by her husband Eli Wallach), Fiona Shaw, and Jose Quintero.
One of his BADA colleagues said, “The thing about Mr. Youmans was that he made everyone feel comfortable and people wanted to be around him – BADA’s starry faculty in particular. He had the perfect way of making them feel special and regular all at the same time. He would almost instantly get to know the little things that would make them happy. One of the things that sticks with me is how he took Jose Quintero [and his partner] grocery shopping on a regular basis while at Midsummer in Stanford. Did they really need a trip to the grocery every day? Or did they just need a little dose of Mr. Youmans?”
Mr. Youmans also served as production manager on the BADA Santa Fe Short Story Festival, where he worked with Fiona Shaw, Marsha Mason, Wes Studi, Jane Fonda, Rosemary Harris, Ali McGraw, Henry Goodman, and Alan Arkin.
Latecomers are a recurring challenge for opera houses. Most opera companies have a policy of not admitting patrons after the performance has started until a suitable pause occurs. Responding appropriately to latecomers was high on the list of Mr. Youmans’s responsibilities.
At a Lyric Opera performance of Lohengrin, a long-time subscriber was six minutes late due to unexpected street closings. She knew the policy and was planning to go to the fourth floor and sit on an upholstered bench by the video monitor for the first act. The ushers would not allow her access to the elevator and Mr. Youmans was called. He started to take the patron and her guest up to four and then said, “Would you like to see the opera from the second floor? I have an unsold box where I can seat you.” She later wrote to compliment him on his handling of the situation and said, “Your suggestion dazzled us. Not to miss the very long first act and to have such comfortable seating. You even took time at the end of the first act to look and see if all was well with us! “She concluded, “This is a long way around to tell you how much your quick, kind, generous action meant to Catherine and me. God bless you. We will never forget our evening in Box 31 – or the tall, smiling House Manager who made it possible.”
On July 24, 2022, that famous smile faded forever. Mr. Youmans is survived by his wife, Susan Kryl, and many fans and friends.