Award-winning San Antonio theater director Jerry Pollock dies

In the mid-1980s, Alamo City Theater, director Jerry Pollock’s big-buzz theater company, had outgrown its cozy digs in the Church Theater in King William, so he went looking for a larger space.

Among the potential spots that he and designer Steve Gilliam looked at was the Josephine Theater, which did not make a great first impression.

“By the time they had closed the doors, it had been a Triple-X theater,” Gilliam said. “When Jerry and I walked into it to look at it as a possibility, there was a good 3 or 4 feet of water sitting there. The mold was just horrible. Jerry saw something in it, and so the two of us went to work to pump the water out. ”

Pollock lined up financial backing to renovate the theater, and just as he had done at the Church, started turning out musicals and plays that those who saw them still talk about years later.

Pollock, who had throat cancer, died Thursday. He was 72.

Jerry Pollock (right) directed Frank Christian in the title role in Alamo City Theater’s staging of “Sweeney Todd” in 1985. Pollock died Thursday.

Charles Barksdale / San Antonio Express-News

“Back in the day, when the two newspapers would end up selecting the best show of the year, from 1985, 1986, 1987, ACT won best show of the year,” Gilliam said. “And then, once we transferred to the Josephine, the very first year of the (Alamo Theater Arts Council) Globe awards, in 1990, ‘Into the Woods’ swept it. And I think that people recognized that ACT was the best thing in town at that time. ”

Pollock, a San Antonio native, stepped away from theater in the mid-’90s after more than two decades of producing musicals and plays. Alamo City Theater shuttered in 1994 after losing its lease. The company also was having financial problems.

Steve Garcia, who worked with Pollock as an actor and also ran the ACT box office, said Pollock had always poured all of his energy into his shows and needed to put some of it into himself.

“He needed to pull away and become human again,” Garcia said. “I think for some, he was considered superhuman. I think it was a big loss to the San Antonio theater. ”

Pollock studied education and drama at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) in San Marcos. After graduating in 1972, he got a job teaching theater at John Jay High School. He taught for two years while directing shows around town. In 1976, he became managing director of the San Antonio Little Theater (now The Public Theater of San Antonio), a post he held until 1984, when he launched the Alamo City Theater.

Back then, the focus of the Fiesta Texas theme park was on shows rather than rides, Gilliam said, meaning there was a lot of professional talent in town.

Alamo City Theater's 1990 staging of

Alamo City Theater’s 1990 staging of “Into The Woods,” directed by Jerry Pollock, featured Amy McFarlane (left) and Marcie Merriell. It was one of may memorable productions directed by Pollock, who died Thursday.

James S. Peterson / San Antonio Express-News

“Jerry started tapping into that, so the shows at ACT really started to go up in quality because of all of the people that we had,” he said.

Pollock did not shy away from risky choices, including staging the drama “Equus,” which included full-frontal nudity, at the San Antonio Little Theater, and the Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins,” which is about would-be and successful presidential assassins, at the Josephine.

Actors knew when they were cast in one of Pollock’s shows that it would be a high-quality production, and they would work hard to meet that bar, Garcia said.

Among the shows he produced with ACT that theatergoers and performers look back on fondly were “Evita,” the opener at the Josephine, and two Stephen Sondheim musicals. He produced “Sweeney Todd” in 1985 in the tiny Church space and “Into the Woods” at the Josephine in 1990, staging it atop a revolving platform.

The Josephine was still an active construction site when the cast started working on “Evita,” recalled Garcia, who was in the show.

“It was basically a shell,” he said. “There was no air conditioning, no bathrooms — we had to go to the burger stand around the corner for bathroom breaks. And it was infested with mosquitoes.

“Frequently, we talk about how horrible it was, but we did not think for one second that it was horrible then. We were part of something new, and it was Jerry creating this new thing for us. ”

Mark Richter (from left), Richard Warren and Donald Bayne starred in Alamo City Theater's 1993 staging of

Mark Richter (from left), Richard Warren and Donald Bayne starred in Alamo City Theater’s 1993 staging of “Assassins.” Jerry Pollock, who directed the show, died Thursday.

Kevin Geil / San Antonio Express-News

“Sweeney Todd” is a large show that would not seem like a natural for an intimate space that seated a maximum of about 60. But they made it work. Gilliam’s set included a second level, where the murderous Todd sent the bodies of those he killed in his barber’s chair down a chute.

At the time, Pollock told the Express-News, “We put everything we had into ‘Sweeney Todd.’ I said if San Antonio did not come see it, I would do something else. But it was a big hit. It let the town now ACT had arrived, and we never looked back. ”

Richard Rosen, who later founded Magik Theater, had just returned to the city from New York when he went to the Josephine to see “Into the Woods.” He was so taken with the show that when Pollock invited him to direct there, he said yes right away.

“I was really knocked out,” Rosen said. “It was as good as what I’d seen on Broadway.”

Gilliam, who has since designed for theaters across the country and spent 31 years teaching and designing at Trinity University, did 25 shows with Pollock.

“I designed the show, it was built and the moment it got into the theater, Jerry made it magical,” he said. “He had the ability to visualize what the audience would be seeing in the space, and there were some outstanding productions – some of the best I’ve ever done.”

Community theater veteran Corinne Breitbach worked with Pollock often. He treated his leads well, she said, noting that he had given her lots of great roles.

A lot of his success boiled down to something that sounds simple but really isn’t.

“He just put on damn good shows,” Breitbach said. “He just knew what to do.”

Pollock is survived by his sons, Jon Michael Pollock and James Patrick Pollock, grandsons Jack Pollock and Jon Ellis Pollock, and ex-wife Karla Clayton Pollock. Services are pending. | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN

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