Noel S. Ruiz, who started his theatrical career leading a small traveling church performance troupe and became founder and executive director of a full-fledged Long Island theater, died Sunday evening. He was 58.
Ruiz was at a wedding when he became ill. Cause of death has not yet been determined.
Ruiz was a youth minister at St. John Nepomucene Roman Catholic Church in Bohemia when he started Creative Ministries in 1987, producing "The Journey, The Cross and Crucifixion," a dramatic interpretation of the Stations of the Cross using dance, music and pantomime, said his longtime partner, Joseph Campanello. The traveling troupe still performs in schools and churches across Long Island.
"We started with about 15 or so friends, all in the arts," Campanello said. "We still do it, with about 30 different players in three traveling troupes."
In 1997, Ruiz expanded the reach of the theater to a physical stage, renovating the old Oakdale Movie Theatre into what's known today as the CM Performing Arts Center.
Under Ruiz's tutelage, the arts center has put on some of the best-known American plays, such as "Godspell," "Sunset Boulevard" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
The first play in the new building was "Man of La Mancha," said Terry Brennan, marketing director and friend. "It was always the tag line. That he dreamed 'The Impossible Dream' and it came true."
The arts center also has plays featuring teen and children actors, and dramatic instruction, said Brennan.
Born in Cuba, Ruiz came to the United States as a refugee with his parents when he was 6 years old. He grew up in Islip Terrace and attended St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip, before working in youth ministries at several local Roman Catholic churches, including St. Peter the Apostle in Islip Terrace and St. Ignatius Loyola in Hicksville, before his job at St. John Nepomucene.
People will remember best his enthusiasm and big smile, said Brennan, as well as his ability to comfort and support those in need, including teens being bullied.
"He's one of the most loving men," said Campanello, who added that he and Ruiz talked of marrying next year. "He used theater and music as a way of bringing people together."
In addition to Campanello, Ruiz is survived by his father and mother, Francisco and Daysi Ruiz from Pembroke Pines, Fla.; sisters Maria Ruiz from Orlando, Fla., and Aelyn Baney from Islip Terrace; and a brother, Frannol Ruiz, from Pembroke Pines, as well as nine nieces and nephews.
Funeral arrangements had not been completed. A memorial at the theater will be planned in the near future, said Brennan.