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Felix Shuman, co-founder of Jefferson Awards, dead at 87

Felix Shuman for Obit Photo

Felix Shuman for Obit Photo

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Updated: March 1, 2012 9:52AM



Felix Shuman was a busy actor who co-founded the Joseph Jefferson Awards, often referred to as Chicago’s version of the Tonys.

But he never forgot just how tough show business could be.

He didn’t only cheer others on from his seat when they were lucky enough to score a role. He let artists crash on his sofa — sometimes, for weeks at a time.

When dancer-choreographer Lou Conte returned from a long-ago stint in Europe, “I was completely broke,” he recalled. He stayed with Mr. Shuman and his wife, Thelma, in their Hyde Park home for six weeks. “I slept on the cushions from the couch on the floor.”

And afterward, Mr. Shuman “posed as my uncle so I could get a lease because I had no credit,” said Conte, who became the founding artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

In the 1980s, Mr. Shuman took some of the first classes offered at the fledgling Chicago Shakespeare Theater and convinced others to sign up as well. “In some ways, Felix was one of the founding actors,” said Barbara Gaines, the theater’s founder and artistic director.

In the 1950s, when he managed Basic Books at 64 E. Lake St., “He hired a lot of us actors,” said Grace Colucci, who performed under the name Grace Collette. “Come summer, we would all get jobs in summer stock [theater], and we all would leave.”

Mr. Shuman, who also had roles in several movies, died Jan. 3 at Warren Barr Pavilion. He was 87.

He was born in the Texas town of Canyon, and his family moved around a lot during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, said his friend, actor Steve King.

He attended the University of North Texas in the town of Denton, where he met Thelma, who brewed his interest — literally.

“She was making homemade beer. She was renting a small apartment, and she was making beer in this apartment, and they became fast friends,” King said.

They married and moved to Chicago. Mr. Shuman earned a master’s in education from Northwestern University and a master’s in Theater Arts from DePaul University, where he studied under the no-nonsense acting teacher Bella Itkin-Konrath. She also trained Geraldine Page, Linda Hunt, Joe Mantegna, Elizabeth Perkins, Charlayne Woodard, Michael Rooker and Kevin Anderson.

Mr. Shuman was in Chicago’s thrall to the end of his days. “Every time we went out to dinner or the theater — which was often —we would drive down Lake Shore Drive to return him to his home in Hyde Park, he would always, always, always say: ‘This is the most beautiful city,’ ” said Steve King’s wife, Connie.

Early in his career, Mr. Shuman worked as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and in a one-room schoolhouse in the village of Lace, which evolved into the City of Darien in the southwest suburbs.

In the 1940s and 1950s, he landed roles at In the Round Dinner Playhouse at Archer and Mayfield in Chicago and at the Piccolo Playhouse in Joliet. He performed in “Bye Bye Birdie,” “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and “The Music Man.” He starred as Nathan Detroit in a production of “Guys and Dolls” with Vivian Blaine, the quintessential “poi-sin” with a cold, Miss Adelaide.

Tall and funny, he had an elastic face with a Walter Matthau-esqe quality, friends said.

He also had parts in movies including “Damien Omen II,” “The Fury” and “Music Box.”

Mr. Shuman landed lucrative voiceover roles in commercials for Aldi, Kellogg’s cereals and Miracle Whip. “He had a sort of raspy, quirky voice,” Steve King said.

“He could do different tones, different people, different characters,” Gaines said.

The Shumans enjoyed modern art — he had a goat sculpture that artist John Kearney fashioned out of auto bumpers. They always had a couple of cats around, with unusual names like Hepzibah and Mehitabel.

About 10 years ago, “He made a trip to Italy, where his plan was to go to every museum that had a Caravaggio painting,” Connie King said.

“And,” she said, “he did.”

Even as Mr. Shuman’s health declined, he went out to plays. If they were sold out, he would even offer to stand. (His theater friends always found him a seat.) “The desire to see wonderful theater transcended whatever discomfort he was in,” Gaines said.

Mr. Shuman created a beautiful garden with grape vines, so he organized an annual grape harvest and croquet match, Conte said.

He gave Conte, who is retired in Southern Illinois, a riot of flowers for his new home in shades of yellow, orange, red and purple. “I brought them down here,” Conte said. “I call them Felix’s day lilies.”

Mr. Shuman’s wife died before him. He is survived by his sister, Mary Frances Madison. A memorial is planned in Chicago next month.



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