Len Karabell and Audrey Merves to receive Edwin Forrest Award for their service to the Walnut Street Theatre on May 6.
Len Karabell had hopes of going into sports for his career. Instead, he wound up as the controller for the Walnut Street Theatre for 43 years.
Karabell and trustee Audrey Merves are being honored for their service and dedication to the 207-year-old establishment. Each will receive the Edwin Forrest Award on May 6 at an annual gala complete with a concert, “Come Hear the Music Play,” from various performers.
Growing up in Yeadon, Karabell studied accounting at Drexel University. He did “not in the least” have an interest in theater, he said with a laugh.
But an opportunity from a co-op he had done as a student led him to the theater, and he never looked back.
“My main interest was sports; it wasn’t theater, certainly,” he said. “But through luck of the draw, I got this interview and have gotten to love theater over the last 43 years.”
In his role, he balanced books, signed paychecks and completed other duties, which all introduced him to the Walnut Street Theatre community, from the performers to whom he would pop his head in during rehearsals and say hello to his fellow staff.
“I’m not a creative person, but I was able to see all the creative people at work and see what I can’t do,” he chuckled, “and know what I can do, which is handling the money and making sure everything is recorded properly.”
He loved the interaction with everyone he worked with. One thing people will surely miss is seeing a note Karabell wrote on their pay stubs, an extra task he started to personalize his relationships with everyone.
“Sometimes it was just ‘Hi,’ but a lot of times it was more detailed than that,” he said. “I enjoyed communicating that way and people would know that, and sometimes when I didn’t write one they would say, ‘Len, where was my note?’ I must have written hundreds of thousands of notes over the years. It doesn’t matter what they got paid — I tried to be as personalized as I could, even though my job wasn’t very personalized.”
Karabell recently had to retire from his role due to unforeseen medical issues, and while he wishes he could have stayed longer and received this award maybe a few more years down the road, he is grateful for the opportunities he had with the theater and the relationships he formed there.
Watching the theater grow during his tenure has been one of the most enjoyable parts for him, and he credits Producing Artistic Director Bernard Havard for that.
“I grew to love theater, the job itself — even though I was doing the same thing I was doing a few months ago as I was 43 years ago — except the theater has grown exponentially in the time Havard has been there,” he said.
Karabell, who lives in Havertown and attends Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, is most proud of the growth he has seen in the theater and was more proud to be a part of it.
“It has been unbelievable to witness as we have grown to be the largest producing regional theater in the country,” he said, “as far as number of subscribers, income, actors we employ — it’s grown since the early ’80s as a producing theater and I’ve been proud to be a part of that.”
Audrey Merves has worn many hats throughout her long career.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1956 with an art history degree, she got married and moved to New York with her husband. There she worked as a staff writer for Tex and Jinx, a nationally syndicated show on NBC.
“Everything was under the seat of your pants,” she said of her first job. “If it worked, ‘Yay! Do it again,’ if it didn’t work — bummer. It was very exciting.”
A few years down the road, after moving back to Philadelphia, she worked for The Carlton Fredericks Show and Meet Dr. Beltz in producing roles.
Even later, she took on a new job that “intrigued” her: head of volunteer services at Temple University.
“I loved the idea of the possibility of the help you can do for people,” she said.
She earned a master’s degree in education and spent time substitute teaching as well.
The role of education was an important one for her as she became more involved with the Walnut Street Theatre.
The gala’s proceeds benefit the theater’s Education and Outreach programming, a cause Merves is passionate about.
“In the last few years, I’ve really become more involved with the education programs in the public schools, within our own venue, and it’s a joy,” she said. “It’s a joy because you don’t know how you affect a child’s life by giving them this whole new avenue they didn’t know existed.”
She recalled how after one performance she sat in on at a school, a young boy went up to one of the actors and asked how he can see it again and if it would be on TV. It was his first time seeing a theatrical performance.
“In the schools that we have gone into,” she said, “by the time we leave and have a program in place for them to continue [the programs are set in place for three years], the scores of children across the board have risen, they have less problems, the whole tenor of the school changes and that’s quite a psychological phenomenon. Something right is being done by exposing these children to other avenues that are out there for them.”
Merves grew up in a home that encouraged pursuing the arts. She even took classes at the Juilliard School during high school where she learned that while singing might not be her best professional career path, it helped her push her own boundaries.
“My world became much wider and bigger,” she said. “It forced me to do things I might not have done otherwise.”
She recalled being able to see every show in New York City — ticket prices were not as steep as they are today.
Her enthusiasm for theater is what led her to the Walnut Street Theatre, where she joined the board by accident.
At one of the many events she started attending and getting involved with, she was chatting with an actress who has performed there frequently who mentioned there were few women on the board.
“I must have said, ‘I hope you get some,’” she recalled with a laugh. “Little did I know they had all planned this — I walked out being a member of the board.”
She has served as president of the sisterhood at Adath Israel, a trustee of the Judaic Studies at Penn, as president of Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center and helped it move to Temple University and was a member on many boards. But serving on the board of directors at the Walnut Street has been valuable to her.
“I’ve been on many boards, I’ve been a peon and I’ve been a president — I don’t remember ever working on a board that was so pleasant to work with,” she said. “Everyone is working for the same goal.”
She was honored that she was chosen for the Edwin Forrest Award, though it took some persuasion from her family to accept it.
“I’ve never done something to get a pat on the back, I do it because it fulfilled something I need,” she said.“There’s a multitude of reasons why any particular person gets an award and I’m really very honored, and that’s the truth.”
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