The primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral history Project

Celebrating the visionaries who created New York's vibrant Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater.

Donn Russell

Donn Russell

Foundation Director, Author

Interviewed on: Thursday, February 18, 2016
Location: His Home
Interviewed by: Casey Childs
Interview #60
"I thought, well, if I’m going to do this thing, I’m going to really do it. Maybe it’s better if I don’t know anything about setting up a foundation. We can just do our own [thing]. And that’s how it all started. I just kept going to shows."
Donn Russell Highlights
Video Length: 5 minutes, 55 seconds
Donn Russell Interview Part 1
Video Length: 1 hour, 12 minutes
Donn Russell Interview Part 2
Video Length: 51 minutes, 37 seconds

Donn Russell is a foundation director who has supported Off- and Off-Off-Broadway for over 50 years. Russell grew up in Midway, Massachusetts during World War II. In his teens, as Donny Russell, he crooned a la Sinatra on the weekly coast-to-coast CBS music radio broadcast “Youth on Parade.” Once the war ended, the program lost funding, and Russell went on to the Boston University College of Music for further vocal study; however, he realized his range was too limited for a classical career. At his artist mother’s urging, he entered the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn on a full scholarship to study art and architecture. He later transferred to the Art Students League of New York, where he met Peg Santvoord, an art, dance, and film enthusiast. Their bohemian professional ties were to become the impetus for his later philanthropic ventures.

In 1965, Russell co-founded the Peg Santvoord Foundation with several of her family members, in memory of her recent untimely demise in a Caribbean plane crash. He developed the foundation to encourage and financially support non-commercial stage and film productions. Along with his foundation ties, Russell is also a renowned artist, musician, and author of the now-classic “Avant-Guardian 1965-1990: A Theater Foundation Director’s Twenty-Five Years Off-Broadway,” which, along with his other books, is freely available for online reading via Open Library. His invaluable contribution to countless Off-Off-Broadway performance companies earned him the coveted Innovative Theatre Founders Award in 2015.

Mentioned in Interview

Peg Santvoord, Mildred Milch, Kenneth Lonergan, Joseph Chaikin, Shami Chaikin, Paul Zimet, Frank Sinatra, Peg Santvoord Foundation, Donn Russell Foundation, Waverly Gallery, Theater for the New City, Henry Street Settlement, The Open Theater, The Talking Band, Youth On Parade, HOT LUNCH APOSTLES