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Robert Sickinger, ‘father of Chicago’s Off Loop theater movment’ (1927-2013)

Robert Sickinger 'father Chicago’s Off Loop theater movment' pictured Chicago's Hull House early 1960s.

Robert Sickinger, "the father of Chicago’s Off Loop theater movment," pictured in Chicago's Hull House in the early 1960s.

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Updated: June 13, 2013 6:56PM

Robert “Bob” Sickinger, widely considered “the father of Chicago’s Off Loop theater movement,” and the man instrumental in the founding of the hugely influential Hull House Theater at Broadway and Belmont that blossomed throughout the 1960s, died of congestive heart failure Thursday morning in Delray Beach, Florida. He was 86.

Mr. Sickinger, who first made his mark as a young director in Philadelphia, arrived in Chicago at the age of 35 at the invitation of Paul Jans, a fellow Philadelphian who had been hired to serve as executive director of Hull House.

“Bob quickly began setting up chamber readings of modern plays at the homes of movers and shakers, arranging post-show wine-and-cheese discussions with literay experts and psychoanalysts and such,” recalled veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum, whose career was set in motion by Mr. Sickinger. “Clearly he was assembling the core of subscribers and others who would follow him to the Hull House to see plays by Harold Pinter, LeRoi Jones and Edward Albee, who was new at the time.”

Mr. Sickinger became a lightning rod for the Chicago actors of early 1960s Chicago who formed a rather small and under-utilized casting pool. Along with Nussbaum, another notable fledgling artist mentored by Sickinger was David Mamet.

Writing about Mr. Sickinger, Mamet has said: “Bob was one of the greatest directors I’ve ever known. He invented the Chicago theater of today. He was a maniac. Grown men and women lived in fear of his wrath and blossomed at his praise. We were all amateurs, and so we worked nights, from 6 p.m. till 3 a.m. We did ‘Who’ll Save the Plowboy?, ‘The Threepenny Opera,’ ‘The Typists,’ and ‘The Brig,’ ‘The Connection’.

“This was in 1964. I was sixteen years old. I was a member of the chorus, I tore tickets, I was on the scene crew, I fetched coffee. There was drama every night, onstage and off. Sickie exuded drama. He had a boundless passion for Beauty on the Stage, and a complete conviction that said beauty was just and exactly what he said it was. We were something new: we were the neighborhood getting together and talking about the world.”

Of course nothing is forever, and by 1969, things had begun to fall apart at Hull House and Mr. Sickinger headed to New York.

“My dad’s love for the theater was stronger than anything else,” said Ericka Sickinger, the youngest of his five children. “Even within the past month he went with my mom to see the Metropolitan Opera simulcast of ‘Rigoletto’ at a movie theater. And growing up in Manhattan I remember him taking me to see ‘42nd Street’ on Broadway and allowing me to dance in the aisles. He encouraged all displays of enthusiasm.”

In the 1970s, Mr. Sickinger directed a couple of films [“Love in a Taxi” and “The Naughty Victorians”], and worked often at the Manhattan Theatre Club and many small theaters.

“He also played small roles in such movies as ‘Medium Cool,’ Mickey One’ and, thanks to his friendship with William Friedkin, ‘The French Connection’,” said another daughter, Denise Stabenau. “But I think he always believed his years in Chicago were the most creative years of his life.”

In addition to Ericka and Denise, Mr. Sickinger is survived by his wife, Jo-Ann, and children Judi Fazi, Robin Sickinger and Robert Porter. He also left behind five musicals, including one based on “Nicholas Nickleby.” Plans for a memorial are pending.

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