Sweet farewell: celebrating Jack Featheringill

The life of the legendary Portland teacher and Broadway hoofer, who died last month, will be celebrated at Center Stage

Jack in his Broadway days, from his files. Show and partner unknown.

Jack in his Broadway days, from his files. Show and partner unknown.

In my rambles through Portland’s South Park Blocks over the many years I worked downtown I encountered a lot of fellow walkers who claimed the place at least partly as their own. Considering the neighborhood – the Oregon Historical Society, Portland Art Museum, Portland State University and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall are among the institutions cozying up to the tree-lined avenues – it’s not surprising that several of those strollers were pretty interesting people.

I often bumped into Terence O’Donnell, the trim and tweedy historian who wrote the terrific memoir “Garden of the Brave in War,” his recollections of his 15 years of living in Iran. Tom Vaughan, the legendary boss of the historical society. Gordon Gilkey, the equally legendary and famously crusty curator of prints and drawings at the art museum. Whenever I stopped to chat with one of these people – or with a particular old panhandler, an argumentative-verging-on-abusive Korea vet with whom I struck up a wary friendship until, one day, he simply disappeared for good – I learned something.

 

Photo: Gary Gumanow/2010

Photo: Gary Gumanow/2010

Jack Featheringill was one of that walking crowd of fascinating figures, too, especially after he retired from his 30-odd years of teaching at Portland State and had a little more time on his hands. I’d ask Jack what he was up to and every now and again he’d break into a particularly wide smile in response. “Off to New York next week,” he’d say. “Got to catch up with my beloved City Ballet.”

What few people in Portland knew was that Jack had good reason for that passion. In his young days as a Broadway hoofer he’d danced for George Balanchine and a lot of other legends. Look him up online – he danced under the name Jack Leigh – and you’ll see he had a hand (and two feet) in a lot of important Broadway history. He danced or sang or both in, among others, “On Your Toes,” “Li’l Abner,” “Ziegfeld Follies of 1957,” “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and the lovely, underappreciated musical “She Loves Me.” He was a River City resident in the original “Music Man,” and danced with Marian the Librarian in the movie version. He danced with Ethel Merman and Judy Garland. He also did a lot of stage managing, and he cast the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Not that you’d hear him talk much about it. He was proud of those days, but he didn’t dwell on them. In Portland he was known as a great teacher, an innovative director, an entrepreneur within the constraints of a public university system. He made PSU’s theater department a center for summer stock, with a long run at the Coaster Theatre in Cannon Beach and, later, with a string of vibrant summer shows at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall. He knew art and he knew entertainment, and he was adept at finding that sweet spot where the two come together and kiss. Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, Jean Anouilh, Georges Feydeau – his tastes were broad and sophisticated. For more than 30 years he was an essential figure on the Portland theater scene, insisting on professional standards and encouraging the best from his students. Many of them – those who didn’t move on elsewhere – in turn became stalwarts of the Portland stage. They’re still here, acting with or directing or teaching a new generation.

Jack died on July 3 of this year, a day after undergoing open heart surgery, and he’s left a big hole in a lot of people’s lives. He was 81. You can read his obituary here. I would wish him more trips to see City Ballet, more cocktails with old friends, more promising students to poke and prod into shape, more happy reminiscences of a life well led. Failing in those things, I’ll be at Portland Center Stage at 7 o’clock Monday night, August 26, for the city’s celebration of Jack’s life. Hope to see you there. Jack was a remarkable man. He deserves a remarkable farewell.

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4 Responses.

  1. Lana says:

    Thank you so much for this tribute, Bob.

  2. Jane Jarrett says:

    Finally got a moment to read this. It is a lovely capture of Jack, his talent and his spirit.

  3. Rob Harrison says:

    That was lovely Bob. Thanks for sharing. I just learned a few new thigs about Jack. What a treat.

  4. After your lovely article about Cabaret Chanteuse, it would be great to see that series noted every month as the singers change. And, funnily enough, I’m on September 12’s bill, along with Dorothy Bryant, Anne DuFresne and Cindy Ramsey-Rier. Did you know all those gals are native Oregonians?!
    Check us out at Tony Starlight’s Supper Club & Lounge.

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