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Fred De Feis, influential LI theater figure, dies at 92

De Feis founded Arena Players Repertory Theater in 1951 and guided the company for more than six decades.

Fred De Feis, artistic director of the Arena

Fred De Feis, artistic director of the Arena Players in Farmingdale, has died at 92. Photo Credit: Newsday/Joe Dombroski

Fred De Feis, one of the leading lights of Long Island theater who founded Arena Players Repertory Theater in 1951 and guided the company for more than six decades, died Thursday. He was 92. De Feis died of natural causes, according to his son, David.

“My father was Long Island theater,” said David De Feis, in talking about the mark he made on local stages. “He wasn’t interested in just doing things that would bring in money. He loved doing esoteric plays, Greek tragedy and for more than 25 years did Shakespeare at the Vanderbilt. He believed in a vast assortment for the discriminating theatergoer.”

De Feis, who was born Jan. 6, 1926, grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. As a child, he would often read as many as 10 books a week. Plays were among them, and he majored in theater at Brooklyn College. De Feis also received a master of fine arts degree from Fordham University in 1951.

After teaching at Iona College in New Rochelle from 1947 to 1950 and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh from 1950 to 1952, De Feis came back to New York City, where he taught speech and drama. In 1957, he joined the faculty of Seaford High School as a drama and English teacher until his retirement in 1980.

His passion for the stage led him, in 1951, to establish Arena Players, which staged shows at libraries, parks and schools throughout Long Island. The company from 1959 to 1963 also took up residence on the sixth floor of the control tower at the then-Idlewild (now JFK) Airport with its Theatre in the Skies program. Arena finally found a home in 1970 in a storefront at a commercial strip on Route 109 in East Farmingdale near Republic Airport.

“We’d get people from all over the world dropping by whenever their flights were delayed,” including Rock Hudson and Vincent Price, De Feis told Newsday in 2010. De Feis, whose many roles included Othello, directed a number of up-and-comers in Arena shows, including Northport’s Edie Falco and Mineola son Brian Dennehy.

In 2011, De Feis sold the theater to pursue other interests. “Fred was a larger-than-life character,” says Evan Donnellan, executive director of Carriage House Players, a reincarnation of Arena Players based in Centerport. “He was a real mentor. He taught me to be more open onstage and be more connected with people. I’m honored to carry on his legacy at the Vanderbilt Mansion.”

In addition to his son, De Feis is survived by his daughters, Doreen and Danae, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A viewing will take place Thursday 2-4:40 p.m. and 7-9:30 p.m. at Mangano Family Funeral Home, 1701 Deer Park Ave., Deer Park. The funeral service will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at Saint Charles Cemetery in East Farmingdale.

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