Actor, director, mentor, friend and beloved former drama professor John R. "Jack" Freimann died yesterday in Huntington Beach, California. He was 91. A member of Whitman's Harper Joy Theatre faculty for more than 30 years, he retired to New York City in 1992 to resume his professional acting career. The namesake for Harper Joy's 100-seat Freimann Studio Theatre, he also founded the facility's famed poster collection, to which he contributed long after leaving Walla Walla.
"Jack loved everything about the theatre," said Professor Emerita of Theatre Nancy Simon '63, Freimann's friend and colleague for more than 50 years. "He began the poster collection because he said he wanted people to know how much theatre there was in the world. The deep joy I still find in being in a theatre is in great part a legacy from Jack. He was a force of nature."
Born and raised in Selah, Washington, Freimann earned degrees in theatre from New York University and Fordham University, and studied at American Conservatory Theater and the British Drama League, among other renowned institutions. In addition to stage productions, Freimann appeared in a range of other formats, including feature films, television series, late night comedy shows and commercials. He also directed, acted in and did scenic design for more than a dozen summer and winter stock programs across the country, and was an audience favorite for 14 seasons at The St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre in Missouri, the nation's oldest and largest outdoor musical theatre.
A longtime member of the Actors' Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild and United Scenic Artists, he volunteered for industry organizations and charities such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Actors Fund, Theatre Development Fund and New York City Ballet.
He also mentored Whitties who moved to New York to pursue acting. Actress Erika Rolfsrud '90, known for House of Cards and Law and Order, first met Freimann as a dramatic art major at Whitman and maintained a close connection for many years. She posted a poignant tribute to her former professor on social media, praising the "love and guidance you've given so many students over the years" and referring to her early training as being "theatrically raised by Jack ... He raised me right. Taught me the basics. The foundational things every actor should know. And fed my curiosity to know more and more about theater, about life."
"We will carry your knowledge and passion for the theatre with us always," she added.
Writer and radio personality John Moe '90, another dramatic art major, echoed, "Jack was a great acting teacher, could design any set, knew everything about theatre. But he knew and taught a lot more than that. He taught how to put on a show. How to make art that was a celebration. Jack taught me how to make something that celebrated being on stage with artists and being in a room with audiences ... That spirit of shared joy has informed so much of what I've done since."
In the last decades of his life, Freimann returned to Whitman to share his passion and expertise with new generations of students. He spoke at Whitman's Commencement in 2001 and received an honorary degree. In an interview commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harper Joy Theatre in 2008, he recalled grueling rehearsal schedules and remarked, "I worked all the time ... and didn't resent it." While at Whitman, Freimann assembled a collection of musical theatre recordings for the college's music listening library and donated hundreds of playbills, books and memorabilia items to Penrose Library. In 2010, he attended the Jack Freimann Poster Collection Exhibition in the Fouts Center for Visual Arts (video). The extensive and eclectic collection has even attracted press coverage.
In 2016, Whitman hosted a celebration of Freimann's 90th birthday in New York. Soon after, he moved to the West Coast to be closer to relatives. At his request, no formal memorial service will be held. Gifts may be made in his honor to the John R. Freimann Visiting Artist in Drama Endowment at Whitman College.