Virginia Stage Company Founding President, Robert Brown, dies at age 79

Founding president of Norfolk's Virginia Stage Company, Robert Brown, dies at age 79

By Rashod Ollison
The Virginian-Pilot
May 23, 2017 

Robert Brown’s “laser-like” focus helped turn what was once a fledgling community theater group into the Virginia Stage Company, the only resident professional theater company in Hampton Roads.

That was back in 1968, when Brown was 30 years old, a young man who’d recently earned degrees in economics and law. He also was a lifelong advocate for the arts who, in 1974, became the inaugural president of the board of directors for the VSC, remaining there for the company’s formative first six years.

  Robert Brown at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk, pictured with Chuck Kerr and Roger Morgan in 1978.

Robert Brown at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk, pictured with Chuck Kerr and Roger Morgan in 1978.

Brown died Friday from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He was 79.

“Virginia Stage Company was founded not by an artistic leader but by a group of Norfolk citizens. Their leader was Bob Brown,” Sally Clarkson, president of the board of trustees of Virginia Stage Company, said in a statement. “He shepherded VSC through both artistic triumphs and challenging times. He once mortgaged his own house to make a significant contribution. He had the unusual combination of a laser-like focus on artistic excellence, business skill, and generosity of spirit that allowed our company to survive and flourish.”

Brown grew up in Norfolk and graduated from Churchland High School. He was the first in his family to attend college, graduating from the University of Virginia. During his time there, he was active in the Navy ROTC and served two years with the Navy before returning to Charlottesville as a student at the University of Virginia School of Law, from which he graduated in 1965.

Brown’s legal background was instrumental in shaping the business side of the VSC, including the acquisition in 1979 of the Wells Theatre. The theater had opened in 1913 as a home for vaudevillian shows and movies, but by the 1960s had become a place for X-rated movies. Brown’s expertise in mediation also helped secure local and state support of the VSC. Brown served for more than 34 years on the theater company’s board of trustees, executive committees and as VSC’s legal counsel.

Under Brown, the VSC opened its first season at the Wells in February 1980, during a snowstorm that shut down much of the area. But the first night of Alan Ayckbourn’s play “Relatively Speaking” at the Wells still drew a full house, partly because of Brown’s tireless promotion.

“Bob was a kind and gentle soul with the determination and tenacity required to bring his vision of a world-class theater company to Hampton Roads,” said Steve Fuschetti, former president of the board of directors for VSC. “ ... Rather than clinging to the past, Bob was a strong advocate for the change and innovation that has sustained and enriched Virginia Stage Company over the years and positions it today for an even brighter future.”

Brown is survived by a daughter, two sons and five grandchildren. Roslyn, his wife of 34 years, preceded Brown in death in 2015. The memorial service will be at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk at 1 p.m. June 4.