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Marc Cohen used set and scenery design skills to restore theater at the Field Museum

Edward Marcus 'Marc' Cohen

Edward Marcus 'Marc' Cohen

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Updated: July 7, 2013 12:55PM

After working for years as a respected set and scenery designer in the world of make-believe — the theater — Marc Cohen used those skills to transform real-world spaces like the historic Simpson Theater in Chicago’s Field Museum.

Mr. Cohen died May 25 at his North Side home of T-cell lymphoma. He was 75.

He grew up in Corsicana, Texas, and received his bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Texas. At Yale University, he earned a master’s degree in fine arts.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he drew critical praise for his set and scenery designs at the Goodman Theatre. The plays he worked on included “Heartbreak House,” “Oh, What a Lovely War!” “A Flea in Her Ear,” “Eccentricities of a Nightingale” and “Poor Bitos.”

A member of the United Scenic Artists of America, he also taught lighting, set design and directing at the University of Cincinnati, friends said.

From 1998 to 2005, he was a project manager at a construction consulting firm, Evanston’s CATH Associates, where he oversaw the restoration of the Field Museum’s Simpson Theater. It was a painstakingly detailed job that required Mr. Cohen to rehab the space but retain its 1920s-era beauty.

“Renovating it back to its original glory was definitely a challenge, and Marc came through it with flying colors,” said Frantz Cartright, a founder of CATH Associates. “The details in the ceiling had to be not only renovated, but brought up to code with sprinklers. It was challenging.”

For the next several years after that, friends said, Mr. Cohen was a project manager on a large job at the Illinois Institute of Technology that upgraded classrooms, laboratories and computers.

In his private life, Mr. Cohen was an oenophile, with a special fondness for two American wines: Turley, a California Zinfandel; and Dominus, a Napa Valley Bourdeaux-style blend. His refined palate was the trusted basis for the purchase of a small fortune in wine by a gourmands’ group he belonged to, the Chicago chapter of the Ordre des Canardiers, which partakes in meals by chefs of the caliber of Roland Liccioni of Les Nomades.

Mr. Cohen became the chapter’s wine steward. In a tasting of 2002 burgundies, “We probably spent $10,000 in one morning on wines, and Marc helped us make some very astute choices,” said Brett August, a co-founder of the Chicago group. That day, a merchant brought in about 30 different wines, and Mr. Cohen “had lots of insight.” His specialty was being able to taste a wine, identify its complexities, and predict how it would mature years down the road, August said.

“He knew good wine,” Cartright said. “He knew good restaurants and good food.”

His home had many decanters for pouring wine and letting it breathe before drinking, August said. Mr. Cohen crafted his own wine cellar. Using his set-design skills, he hand-painted its door with a grape theme, August said.

Until he became ill, he had an impish appearance that made him look 15 years younger than his true age.

In retirement, Mr. Cohen worked with community theater groups. “Marc was a brilliant set designer for last summer’s production of ‘Sabrina Fair,’ building this beautiful background and stage for our actors,” said Donna Lubow, artistic director of Riverwoods’ Theatre in the Woods. “He was insightful, diligent and lots of fun to work with.”

“Marc loved everything about the theater world. He was a devoted Shakespeare fan and attended every production he could, whether in Chicago, New York or Stratford,” said a close friend, Jill Leslie Drell.

Mr. Cohen is survived by his sons, Todd and Shawn, and four grandchildren. He was buried May 30 in the historic Hebrew Cemetery in his hometown of Corsicana.

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