By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Austin Sears, 72, creator, manager and actor at the Cooperstown Summer Theatre Festival for three decades, exited life’s stage on Dec. 17, 2019, in New York City.
“We met in 1979,” his wife Margarita said in an interview this week. “The 40 years I knew him, it was all Cooperstown. It was all theater. That was his life. That’s what he talked about and did every day – looking for actors, soliciting scripts.”
The curtain went up on July 6, 1984, inside the renovated barn on West Lake Road about a mile south of Glimmerglass Opera. The first performance, Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” played to a packed house. At the end, it poured, and cars got stuck in the mud looking to exit. “Kirn’s was coming back and forth to pull cars out,” Maggie said.
The operation – an Equity company, featuring unionized professionals – continued as the Theatre Festival, then as the Cooperstown Summer Theatre & Music Festival, (bringing Linda Chesis to Cooperstown for the first time; she later spun off the Cooperstown Summer Music Festival, which continues today). In the final years, the Leatherstocking Theatre Company performed there. The Austins finally closed its doors in 2013.
“When you’re on the outside looking in, you don’t realize how much work is involved,” Austin said in an interview at that time. A season included 72 performances – two matinees, five evening shows a week, “on a hand-to-mouth budget,” the founder said.
“I found him so congenial,” recalled Sam Goodyear, who acted for Sears at the summer festival, and later contracted with him to use the facility for the Leatherstocking Theatre Company. “He was such a sweet-hearted person, with an amazing wry sense of humor. He was a total delight to work with, on stage and off.”
Austin Sears was born on Nov. 2, 1947, in New York City, to Bernard Horatio Sears, an ivory and ostrich merchant, and the former Gustava N. Pototska. He was raised in the city, receiving his B.A. from City College of New York’s Theater Department, then a master’s in film from Columbia.
Then he immediately “became an actor. And that’s all he did,” said his wife, the former Margarita Malinova, a concert pianist whom he met in 1979. The couple had a son, Will, an Olympic skating contender, who died of a cardiac malfunction at age 20 while training in 2002.
Early on, Sears performed in London at such famous venues as the Drury Lane Theatre (as Hillary McKenzie, “The Boiling Oil Machine,” 1969) and the New Vic (Dr. Seward in “Dracula,” 1973.) Back in the U.S, in 1974 he played the title role in the National Shakespeare Company’s “Hamlet,” and played King Arthur in national tours of “Camelot” in 1979 and 1983.
In 1979, he made his film debut in Universal’s “Running,” a sports drama starring Michael Douglas, and later played FBI Agent Jones in “Prince of the City,” Warner Brothers, 1981.” In 1977, he had played Luke O’Hare in the PBS series, “Best of Families.”
Soon after they were married, Maggie Sears recalled, the couple began looking for a suitable barn to convert to a summer theater. Her husband had played Hamlet in a National Repertory Theater Production at Cooperstown High School, and he loved baseball, which drew them here.
Coming to scout out Cooperstown, they drove along Route 7, then Route 28 on a “golden day. Everything was a golden color,” Maggie remembered, and they were entranced. In the summer of 1983, the young couple rented a house in the Otsego Golf Course community at the north end of Otsego Lake.
It was then they discovered the barn on Drs. Cam and Mary Goodwin’s 100-acre property. Ed Johnson, the well-known local primitive painter, was realtor. Dennis Murray, newspaperman turned contractor and Maureen’s husband, worked with Sears to develop and implement the renovation.
Years of hard work – and fun – followed. In the 2013 interview, the couple recalled the stage’s original golden curtain, eaten by raccoons over the winter. Against expectations, “Dracula” was “a total flop.” But “No Sex, Please. We Are British,” was a sellout. Renting a house on Richfield Springs’ James Street one summer to lodge actors, neighbors complained of thespians frolicking au natural on the grounds.
Mrs. Sears said her husband died of a longtime chronic condition. Not wanting to trouble friends during the holiday season, her husband received a private ceremony. At a later date, she plans to place a monument in “Will’s Garden,” and his remains will join his son’s there, a few steps from the center of his life and career. A service will be held at that time.