Jerry Abbitt

Obituary of Jerry W. Abbitt

ABBITT, Jerry W. Jerry W. Abbitt, award-winning scenographer and theatre educator, has died in Windsor, Ontario (Canada) on April 10, 2023. His death was sudden, but not unexpected, as he had been dealing with the challenges of Parkinson’s disease for over four decades. Describing himself as a person making theatre from coffee houses to carnivals, and from Shakespeare to saloon shows, Jerry was a consummate professional: a working-class boy from Kentucky who worked tirelessly to achieve his goal of becoming an artist and teacher. Born in Detroit on March 1, 1947 to James Abbitt and Ethel Mae Jenkins, Kentuckians working seasonally in the mid-west, Jerry was raised in Paducah by distant relatives after losing his mother at the age of 4. A high school football star, somewhat embarrassed by his good grades and a flair for poetry and art, he turned to theatre in his late teens, winning a scholarship to earn a BA in theatre at Murray State University and become the first in his family to finish college. After a stint overseas in the US Army as a code breaker, Jerry married Peggy Jensen and moved back to Kentucky, where he worked at Guntown Mountain, becoming the youngest theme park manager in America. In these years of free-lance work, he was grateful for the opportunity to move with his wife and young son Logan to Purdue University, where he completed an MA and an MFA in theatre design and technology, in a program nurtured by Robert Edmond Jones’ vision of design as a collaborative, artistic practice, on a par with directing and performing. This approach shaped Jerry’s work for the rest of his life. In 1980, after several years as designer/technical director for Theatre Tulsa, Jerry moved to Los Angeles joining the faculty at California State University, Northridge. He worked there for nearly 25 years, teaching production, design and stage management, and eventually serving as Chair. One of his proudest achievements was inaugurating his department’s exchange with China, as designer of Studs Terkel’s Working at the Shanghai Theatre Centre in 1999. A long-time member of the United States Institute of Theatre Technology (USITT), Jerry dedicated himself to the advancement of contemporary design and technology on stage and in the classroom. The recipient of a Drama-Logue award for the West Coast premiere of Paradise Ghetto (Actors Alley Theatre), he designed sets and lighting for over 150 productions in professional and university theatres, including opera, musicals, classics and experimental drama, from California and China to Windsor, Ontario (Canada) where he moved with his second wife Erica Stevens, on his retirement in 2004. A large, exuberant man with a love of boots and cowboy hats, a strong southern twang and an irreverent sense of humor, Jerry enjoyed vintage cars, motorcycles and cigars, as well as playing guitar and golf (with the claim to fame of achieving two holes-in-one, despite his shaky swing!) Unable to do many of these activities in recent years, Jerry joined a boxing program for people with PD called “Rock Steady,” as well taking up carriage riding at the Windsor-Essex Therapeutic Riding Association, making new friends and keeping up his spirits. Stalwart, stubborn, brave, witty and fearless, Jerry helped to shape a generation of theatre practitioners, and lives on in the imagination and achievements of his former students. A teller of tall tales, a wonderful host, a loyal, steadfast and life-long friend, a devoted uncle, god-father, son-in-law, and brother-in-law, he was, above all, a caring husband and proud father. Sadly missed by his son Logan and partner Erica, Jerry leaves behind a legacy of laughter, love and artistry. Thanks are due to a legion of talented and skillful caregivers, doctors, nurses, programmers, and therapists in speech and movement who helped him continue to live life to the fullest until the very end. An informal life celebration was held at Jerry’s home on April 16th and a Zoom memorial will take place on Sunday, April 30th to mark his passing. Those who wish to make a donation in his memory are invited to contribute to a theatre, homeless charity or educational institution of their choosing, or to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Cremation has taken place.
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