Ray Rutan ’51, director of theater emeritus, died on June 16, 2019, in Portland, Maine.
(President Rose sent the following letter to the Bowdoin community on June 20, 2019:)
To the Bowdoin community:
I write with the sad news that Bowdoin has lost alumnus and Director of Theater Emeritus Ray Rutan, who had a profound impact on Bowdoin’s theater department over the course of five decades, from his entry to Bowdoin as a member of the class of 1951 through his retirement in 1993 from his position as director of theater. Ray died on Sunday, June 16, 2019, at the age of ninety-two.
Ray was born Abram Raymond Rutan IV on March 7, 1927, in Paterson, New Jersey. He graduated from Ridgewood High School and, like many in his generation, he joined the military, serving in the US Army from 1945 to 1947 in the Adjutant General Corps.
After his military service, Ray spent a year at Portland Junior College before entering Bowdoin. He majored in history, was a member of the student council, a leader in the campus ROTC, and a James Bowdoin Scholar. But Ray was best known for his participation and leadership in Bowdoin’s Masque and Gown. He’d come to the campus with an interest in drama, having been in the dramatics club at Ridgewood High School, and by the time he left Bowdoin, Ray had been recognized with the first Alice Merrill Mitchell Prize for “the most skill in acting.”
Ray served as secretary and president of Masque and Gown. He went beyond performing, designing sets for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and other productions, including Billy Budd, which was said to have stunned the Bowdoin community with its professionalism. Ray was awarded the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Graduate Scholarship and went on to the Yale School of Drama.
While he was in his first year at Yale, Ray spent his spring break at Bowdoin, designing the set for a production of Hamlet that was performed at Commencement in 1952 by both students and an alumni class, in honor of retiring president Kenneth Sills. It featured a four-level set, from the gravediggers’ pit to the ramparts of the Danish castle. Ray was still performing at Yale, including in a Yale production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he used Elizabethan dialect to play Sir Hugh Evans. After earning his master’s degree in fine arts in 1954, he spent a year with the Nashville Country Playhouse in Tennessee, where he was a set designer and technical director.
Then, in 1955, he came back to Bowdoin to fill in as instructor in English and acting director of drama while his former professor, George “Pat” Quinby, was on sabbatical. Ray stayed two years, moving on to study scenic design and Japanese theater at Waseda University in Tokyo from 1957 to 1959 on a Fulbright Fellowship.
After his Fulbright, Ray worked in New York as a freelance designer and art director for movies and television from 1959 to 1969. He was a member of the National Society of Interior Designers and a member of the United Scenic Artists Union. With his first wife, Dorothy Meltzer, Ray traveled extensively, including to Kenya and England. Dorothy died in 1970 after a prolonged illness, and the next year, Ray began teaching at Bowdoin, where he was a member of the English faculty and director of theater.
He started shaking things up immediately. One of his first productions in 1971 was King John, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, but a play he loved. Shakespeare, Ray said, was essential training ground for actors. For that production, Ray extended the stage at Pickard Theater outward to the third row. That spring, he took on The Cherry Orchard, with a student directing. For many years, Ray represented the entirety of the theater faculty, working with just one staff member, Bill Moody, and a fleet of willing students. Together they produced up to ten works a year, using both Pickard Theater and a 100-seat experimental theater in the basement of Memorial Hall. He was known for the tremendous effort he made to produce impressive sets, which even he admitted were lavish.
The theater was Ray’s second home and his pride and joy. During an impromptu campus visit by Katharine Hepburn in 1987, he threw on the house lights, showed her the whole theater, and spent a half hour telling her about Masque and Gown, before sending her on her way.
He was active outside his own department, serving as the faculty representative to the Bowdoin Alumni Council for three terms from 1974 to 1980. He continued to explore his love of Japanese theater and in 1979 was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to participate in an eight-week seminar on Asian performing arts at UCLA.
In May 1977, Ray married Melinda Small, an associate professor in Bowdoin’s Department of Psychology. They wed on Commencement Day. Melinda survives him, along with her daughter, Whitney Small, and son, Sebastian Small.
Ray retired in 1993. A scholarship in his honor, the Ray Rutan Fund for the Performing Arts, was established in 2003. It is used in part to support students studying theater in the summer.
In 1995 Ray received the Alumni Award for Faculty and Staff. He was lauded then as a man who could produce shows worthy of any stage. In accepting the award, Ray focused on the community he created. He spoke of his delight in looking over the class of incoming first-year students every year. As he saw those young faces, he said he always wondered, “who will be my friend for the rest of my life?” To the Bowdoin community, Ray was a friend for life.
Memorial arrangements are pending and will be shared when the information is available. We share with Ray’s family, his many friends, and his colleagues a deep sense of loss at his passing.