Arts & Theater

Laura Darzell, who ran Stagedoor Comedy Theatre, dies at 87

Laura Darzell, right, shown with Kim Brauer in “Maternal Instincts” at the Arden Playhouse, ran Stagedoor Comedy Theatre in Sacramento.
Laura Darzell, right, shown with Kim Brauer in “Maternal Instincts” at the Arden Playhouse, ran Stagedoor Comedy Theatre in Sacramento. Courtesy of Darzell family

Laura Darzell, who ran the beloved Stagedoor Comedy Theatre from 1973 to 1999, is being remembered as the grand dame of Sacramento comedy theater.

Ms. Darzell died from pneumonia on April 24. She was 87. A celebration of her life is scheduled for June 13.

The larger-than-life, husky-voiced Ms. Darzell ran the theater, which was behind the old Sacramento Inn, with her husband, Jerry Grisham, and friend Bud Rice. She produced 102 shows – all comedies – and was a featured player, while Grisham directed and Rice built the sets, was a stage manager and handled the technical duties.

“She was the ultimate lady and a very generous person,” Rice said. “She was very loyal to her folks – the theater family.

“Sold-out houses to us were not an unusual thing. As far as I know, we were the only theater in town making it totally on box office, not putting any money into it,” he added.

“She wanted to be onstage making people laugh,” granddaughter Olivia Darzell said. “Even though she was always the life of the party, she was incredibly welcoming and self-deprecating.”

Theater in Sacramento at that time – other than Music Circus – was a sketchy, unpredictable affair, but the Stagedoor was a model of consistency and thrived under the gregarious Ms. Darzell’s management. Legendary Sacramento personalities including Jean and Mercer Runyon, John Ickes, Boots Martin, Fred Bonetti, Dick Lear and Don Pierini all performed there.

“She just felt there was a way to do it all,” Olivia Darzell said. “Your passion for theater didn’t have to culminate in being a paid working actor. You could have wonderful talent and give back to a community that was appreciative of it.”

Laura Darzell, who was born Nov. 26, 1927, in Chicago, attended the Chicago Institute of Art for visual arts. She came to Sacramento in 1961 with her then-husband Zygmunt Darzell, and they opened the Darzell Hearing Aid Center. Zygmunt Darzell, a musical educator and symphonic conductor, later founded the Camellia Symphony. The Darzells divorced in 1972, and he died in 1995. Ms. Darzell eventually owned and operated two Darzell Hearing Aid Center locations. She married Grisham in 1977; he died in 2003.

Ms. Darzell bought the Jay Rob Theatre in 1973 from Robert Wyman, whose family had operated the theater for its initial 18 years. She had no previous experience beyond occasionally performing there.

In a Sacramento Bee story about the Stagedoor in 1988, Ms. Darzell told writer Robert Masullo, “People always want us to do other things. But we like comedy. We also like the fact that people come in happy and go out happier. There’s no better feeling in the world. For us, every Friday and Saturday is a party.”

Ms. Darzell’s daughter, Sharmayne, also died earlier. She is survived by sons Erik and Jeffrey Darzell, three granddaughters and three great-grandchildren.

The public celebration of her life will be 2 p.m. June 13 at Chautauqua Theater, 5325 Engle Road, No. 110, Carmichael.