Tony-Winning Set Designer David I. Mitchell Dies at 79

By Robert Simonson
03 Oct 2011

David I. Mitchell, a seven-time Tony Award nominee and two-time Tony Award winner, and a scenic designer for Broadway, opera and ballet, died Oct. 3 in Los Angeles. He was 79.

Mr. Mitchell won his Tonys for his whimsical, circus-like set design of the 1980 musical Barnum and for the Studs Terkel-inspired 1978 musical Working.

"When circumstances require it," wrote Frank Rich of Barnum in the New York Times, "Mr. Mitchell is not averse to sending scenery flying from all directions, including the floor. Yet the set is more than a collection of pretty gimcracks. Its roseate, gaslit glow and golden crown of letters spelling out America suggest another, deeper entertainment."

But perhaps his most famous set was that for the mega-hit Annie, in which Mitchell invoked a glamorous, fairy-tale image of Depression-era New York, as well as the grandeur of Daddy Warbucks' mansion. He almost turned down the job. "I don't think anybody would continue in this business unless there was a chance to hit that kind of jackpot," he said.

Mr. Mitchell was nominated for a Tony for Annie, as well as Trelawny of the "Wells", Foxfire, The Boys of Winter and the 1990 revival of Can-Can. He won a Drama Desk Award for his design of Short Eyes in 1990.

David I. Mitchel was born in Honesdale, PA, and grew up in the Poconos. He attended Kutztown State Teachers College. After two years in the U.S. Army, he began studying theatre design as a graduate student at Boston University. His teacher there was Horace Armistead, a designer for theatre, opera and ballet and the winner of the first Tony Award given for set design.

In New York, Mr. Mitchell worked for several years as an assistant to Ming Cho Lee, who became a great mentor. Through Lee, he began a long-time association with Joseph Papp, designing sets both for Shakespeare in the Park and at the Public Theater. His first Broadway credit was 1970's No Place to Be Somebody, the Pulitzer Prize winner that began life at the Public.

At the New York City Ballet, he designed works choreographed by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, as well as for the recent full-length Sleeping Beauty. His opera designs included works at the New York City Opera and other U.S. opera houses as well as Deutsche Oper in Berlin. His films include "My Dinner With Andre."

Mr. Mitchell's other theatre credits, among many, included I Love My Wife, The Gin Game, Brighton Beach Memoirs, La Cage aux Folles, Legs Diamond, Tru and his last, Dream.

The designer said he loved to build models of his sets far more than rendering drawings, and described the basement of his brownstone as "an elephant's graveyard of models." Mr. Mitchell didn't get to achieve every one of the innumerable ideas he dreamt up for Barnum. One notion was to send the actors playing Barnum and singer Jenny Lind up in the air in a balloon that would fly to the second balcony on a steel track. Then the director discovered the needed insurance would cost "something like $2 billion." "That took care of the balloon."