Craig Noel, the founding director of San Diego's Old Globe who established a vital regional community theater that eventually became a Tony Award-winning font of dramatic productions bound for Broadway, has died. He was 94.

Noel, who began his career as an actor before becoming a director and producer, died of natural causes Saturday at his home in San Diego, the Old Globe announced.


FOR THE RECORD:
Craig Noel obituary: The obituary of Craig Noel, the founding director of San Diego's Old Globe, in the April 5 LATExtra section said he had no immediate survivors. Noel is survived by his partner, Hamza Houidi. —



He had been a fixture at the Globe since 1937, when as a 22-year-old actor he joined the playhouse troupe and landed a part in "The Distaff Side." He directed his first play at the theater in 1939, Edwin Justus Mayer's "Firebrand."

Apart from a break for military service in World War II and a brief stab at a Hollywood film career, Noel spent nearly his entire professional life at the theater set among the eucalyptus groves of San Diego's Balboa Park. He was named resident director in 1947, and even though he turned over the position of artistic director to Jack O'Brien, his hand-picked successor, in 1982, he never relinquished his leadership role. He stayed on as executive director, executive producer and, finally, founding director.

In 2007 he received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush.

"It seems impossible to contemplate a landscape without Craig Noel in it," O'Brien said in a statement. "He was my benign father. . . . He led by witty, loving example -- never needlessly confronting, never challenging, always nurturing, always supportive and always, always charmingly funny. That is not an easy posture to maintain in our industry. He always said of the Globe that it was his cathedral."

Built as a temporary structure for the California Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park in 1935, the Globe grew into a beloved community theater staging Shakespeare and other works.

Under Noel's direction, the Globe became the first professional Actors' Equity theater on the West Coast in 1949 with the debut of the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival. After two fires, in 1978 and 1984, he helped raise funds to rebuild the complex, which now comprises three stages featuring classic and contemporary works. In 1984 the Globe received a Tony for outstanding American regional theater.

Noel helped guide several prominent productions from the Globe to Broadway, including Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods"; August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "The Piano Lesson" and "Two Trains Running"; and Neil Simon's "Rumors" and "Jake's Women."

Overall, Noel directed more than 200 works and produced 270. Though he gave up acting long ago, his final role was as the pivotal Stage Manager in the Globe's 1975 production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."

In the 1960s, Noel introduced such modern playwrights as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco to local audiences with a side project at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art and later in Balboa Park.

He taught young people and Spanish speakers about the dramatic arts through the Globe Educational Tour and Teatro Meta, and he nurtured the careers of young playwrights with the Globe's Play Discovery Program. Under his guidance, the Globe and the University of San Diego established a postgraduate program for actors.

Noel was born Aug. 25, 1915, in Deming, N.M., and moved with his parents to San Diego as a child. After graduating from high school in 1934, Noel acted in local productions and worked odd jobs before arriving at the Globe.

When the U.S. entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy took over Balboa Park and Noel headed to Hollywood, where he trained as an apprentice director at 20th Century Fox.

He was drafted in 1944 and fought in the Philippines. After the war ended, he was transferred to Special Services and sent with the Army's occupation forces to Tokyo, where he directed entertainment for American service members at the Ernie Pyle Theater.

After his discharge, he returned to San Diego and in 1947 directed the Globe's first postwar production, William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life."

And there at the Globe he remained.

"Can you think of anyone who's had as much fun as I have?" he asked San Diego Union Tribune theater critic Bill Hagen in 1984. "I've gotten to play with toys my whole life in a beautiful park, surrounded by beautiful people, and I've gotten paid for it. Who could ask for more?"

Noel is survived by his partner, Hamza Houidi.

A memorial service is pending at the Old Globe.

claire.noland@latimes.com