Actress Ruth Kobart -- perhaps best known for her roles in two Broadway musicals with exceptionally long titles, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying -- died on Saturday, December 14, at age 78 at her home in San Francisco. She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer seven months ago.
A 1963 Tony Award nominee for her performance as Domina in Forum, Kobart had a six-decade career that spanned opera, Broadway musicals, regional theater, films, and television. She had a long association with San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), beginning with the company's first season in 1967.
Kobart was born on April 24, 1924, in Des Moines, Iowa. She began her career in New York, initially pursuing opera, which she had studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Her professional debut was in the Lemonade Opera's Off-Broadway production of Hansel and Gretel (as the Witch), and she went on to perform frequently in NYC and on tour with NBC Opera and New York City Opera. She created the role of the maid Agata in Gian Carlo Menotti's Maria Golovin, given its world premiere at the United States Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, and reprised her performance in David Merrick's short-lived Broadway production of that opera.
She had made her Broadway debut in 1953 in the chorus of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream, understudying opera star Helen Traubel and playing her leading role in the show 20 times. In 1961, Kobart was a hit as the formidable Miss Jones in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, featured prominently in the rousing 11 o'clock number "Brotherhood of Man." She reprised that role in the 1967 film version of the musical.
Over three decades, Kobart appeared at A.C.T. in a wide range of plays and musicals, from The House of Bernarda Alba to The Torchbearers to Sunday in the Park with George. Her final appearance with the company was in 1994 in Home, directed by A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff. "Working with Ruth was such a joy," said Perloff in reaction to her death. "She had more comedy in her little finger than most people have in toto, and pathos as well. She was a star in her own right but also a consummate company member. She just adored the theater."
In the 1970s, while on leave from A.C.T., Kobart played Nurse Ratched in the San Francisco production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for 18 months. She also toured nationally in Forty Carats, Boeing, Boeing, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and Annie (as Miss Hannigan). Her television and film credits included Bob, Trapper John, M.D., and Sister Act.
A celebration of Kobart's life will be held on Sunday, March 9, at 7pm at the Geary Theater, 215 Geary Street, San Francisco. The event will be open to the public.