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Ex-director of Civic Robert Behr dies at 89

– In the 1940s and 1950s, a young actor and World War II veteran from Chicago made his bread with appearances on Broadway as well as a variety of live television and radio shows.

And like many of his friends during the era, he harbored dreams of California, movies and Hollywood.

But Robert E. Behr’s life took a different turn as soon as he and his wife began having kids. Thoughts of the glitz and glamour of a star’s life quickly faded, and the family moved to the Midwest.

It was here that Behr truly found his life’s calling, becoming a director at theaters in Ohio, Iowa and finally, Fort Wayne, where he became known as someone who gave local actors opportunities to perform that they never would have had otherwise.

Behr, 89, died Monday at the Kingston Nursing Center of a brief illness.

“He was very generous and a great mentor,” said Larry Wardlaw, a senior vice president at Asher Agency who has been entrenched in the local theater community for years. “He opened a whole new avenue of opportunities for others.”

A graduate of the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, Behr saw action with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Division in France and Germany during World War II.

In March 1945, he was wounded in battle, lost a leg and then later was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

In New York City he pursued his acting career until he and his wife had their second child, he told The News-Sentinel in 1995. The importance he placed on his family outweighed his pursuit of a star career, he told the newspaper.

“I ended up not going to Hollywood with my friends,” he said.

He instead had stints as a director at various theaters in Springfield, Ohio, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before landing the director’s gig for the Civic Theatre in 1962.

Later, he founded the Theatre Workshop for adults and children as a recreation supervisor for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

As head of that workshop, he gave a very young, very green IPFW theater student who would go on to perform at the Civic his first shot at directing a musical called “Kiss Me Kate.”

“He took a chance on me,” Wardlaw now says, adding that that’s what Behr did – he gave chances to those who needed them.

When budget cuts ended the Theater Workshop, Behr founded the Arena Dinner Theatre, which still exists today. He directed, performed and, as always, gave people the chance to practice their craft.

“He really opened a whole new avenue of opportunities for others. I think he gave a lot of people in the community who maybe couldn’t act at the Civic or didn’t think they could act at the civic opportunities,” Wardlaw said.

And unlike some directors at the time, Behr was not a “tyrant,” according to Wardlaw. Instead, Behr was a gentleman and kind while getting his points across.

He was also color blind, Wardlaw said, often not worrying about an actor’s ethnicity when assigning a part – even if the part traditionally called for a white or black or other ethnic character – but instead the actor’s ability onstage.

When he got out of the director’s chair and took the stage himself, Behr never lost his acting chops.

“He truly captured the emotion of the scene,” Wardlaw said.

Behr also became managing director of the Foellinger Theatre as well as recreation supervisor working with senior citizens once the Theatre Workshop shut down.

He and his wife were active in the Democratic Party of Allen County and were delegates at the 1992 Democratic Convention.

Behr’s wife, Jerry, passed away previously, and he is survived by three sons, two granddaughters, two brothers and many nieces and nephews.

Mass of Christian Burial is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church with calling one hour prior.

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