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Theatrical producer Philip Rose dies at 89

Philip Rose, a groundbreaking theatrical producer who expanded the artistic and social horizons of the Broadway stage with his 1959 production of "A Raisin in the Sun," died May 31 at a retirement home in Englewood, N.J. He was 89 and died after a stroke.

Rose had no experience in theater before producing Lorraine Hansberry's play about an African-American family in Chicago. Fighting skepticism every step of the way, he scrounged for money -- accepting contributions of as little as $5 and $10 -- and signed Sidney Poitier for the leading role.

"Raisin" drew rave reviews as it toured outside New York, but Rose had a hard time finding a Broadway theater for it.

"No one was doing black plays then," he said in 2004. "And what few were being done were done in the basement of black churches."

When it opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, "Raisin" became the first play on Broadway by a black female playwright and the first with a black director, Lloyd Richards. Besides Poitier, the cast included Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands. The play received four Tony Award nominations.

"Raisin" ran for 530 performances and was a critical success, and in a larger sense it represented a significant social advance by introducing black family life to the American cultural mainstream. Rose also coproduced the 1961 film version of the play, with the original cast.

Rose, who was white, attributed his affinity for Hansberry's play, and to African-American culture in general, to several years he spent in Washington in the 1930s and 1940s. He was a bill collector for a department store and spent much of his time in the city's black neighborhoods.

Rose, who was Jewish and grew up poor, shared personal stories with his customers. He soon began attending jazz programs at the Howard Theater and fell in love with a black woman, but the social and legal prohibitions of the early 1940s kept them from getting married.

Rose married actress Doris Belack in 1946. He is survived by her, a brother and three sisters.

In the early 1950s, Rose met Hansberry at an integrated resort in upstate New York, where she was a waitress aspiring to be a writer. When she read parts of "A Raisin in the Sun" to him years later, Rose was determined to take the play to Broadway.

"People don't realize how groundbreaking it was and what a huge risk it was," said Caleen Jennings, an American University theater professor. She said her African-American parents attended the opening night of "Raisin in the Sun."

"My mother came home," she recalled, "and said, 'That was the first time I ever saw myself onstage.' "

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