New York Daily News Theatre Critic Howard Kissel Dies At 69

For decades, he was a fixture after dark. He was also one of the most respected theatre critics whose insightful and intelligent writings were highly regarded by his peers. Howard Kissel passed away at his home on Friday, February 24, 2012. His death was caused by complications from a liver transplant in 2010. He died just two days after returning from a visit with his sister Anne Kissel Elliott in Palm City, Florida. 

Kissel  Photo Getty Images

With his free-flowing mane of gray curls and a gracious smile, Howard was one of those die-hard New Yorkers who was more well informed than anybody has right to be. He had become a mainstay on the theater scene and popped up at numerous other cultural events as well. As the main theater critic for The New York Daily News for 10 years, his opinions were valued and sought after.

Mr. Kissel wrote about film, music and art as well as theater for four decades. He also made a foray into acting. He appears in an early scene of Woody Allen’s 1980 film, Stardust Memories. It was easy to spot him in his de rigueur owlish eyeglasses and three-piece plaid suit, with a halo of dark curls (which would later turn silver), Mr. Kissel, playing the manager of Allen's character, disputes his client’s decision to stop making comedies and to only deal with human suffering instead. In his role, he intones in a droll voice ... Human suffering doesn't sell tickets in Kansas City!

Howard Kissel knew a lot about selling tickets, as well as a plethora of things about New York, his adopted and beloved home. He lamented what he playfully called the Kiddy Komponent of New York theatergoing, which he said led to a 13-year run for Beauty and the Beast (1994-2007). He praised the … wonderful dizzy quality … of the puppets in Avenue Q (2003), which won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and is still running in an Off Broadway theater.) He wrote that the 1995 Roundabout revival of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company, a quintessential Manhattan show, looked as if ... it had been done by people who had never been here. He thought The Drowsy Chaperone (2006) to be … full of wit and high spirits, so entertaining you can overlook the fact it came from Los Angeles.

Prior to joining the staff at The Daily News in the mid 80s, Mr. Kissell had been an arts editor for Women's Wear Daily and its sister publication W. He also served as chairman of both the New York Film Critics Circle and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. Always level-headed about perspectives, he wisely never overestimated the egomanical power of some theatrical critics - … Many shows have become big hits without us, he said as part of a panel of critics discussing the 2005-6 season on CUNY TV program “Theater Talk.” … I think that’s just fine. Our job is not to make hits. Our job is to make judgments.

Howard Kissel was also the author of “David Merrick: The Abominable Showman,” a steamy biography of the prolific and controversial Broadway producer whose shows included Gypsy and 42nd Street. He turned Stella Adler’s lectures into the book “The Art of Acting” and most recently wrote “New York Theater Walks,” which detailed walking tours based on the city’s theatrical history.

Born in 1942, Howard Kissel came from Milwaukee. He was the son of Leo Kissel, a longtime editor at The Milwaukee Sentinel and his wife, Ruth. After graduating from Shorewood High School in 1960, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s from Northwestern University. He graduated both with honors.

His wife, Christine, died in 2006. In addition to Ms. Eliot he is survived by another sister, Judy Kissel.

After leaving The NY Daily News in 2008, Mr. Kissel wrote a blog, “The Cultural Tourist,for the newspaper and then for The Huffington Post. His last entry, posted three days before his death, was about a trip last summer that included a high school reunion, … I wish I were one of those people who, as the years go by, continue looking forward, he wrote. …. Alas, I’m not,” he continued … I thank you for your indulgence.

On a personal note, I didn't know Howard very well. Over the years, we had some great talks about cultural doings. My late friend Tom Coviello had an encyclopedic knowledge of opera. Tom and Howard often chatted up a storm and Tom was fascinated to converse with someone who could match his intellect on the complex subject. Our encounters were always full of interesting odds and ends. He was a fascinating man who was overflowing with knowledge and sharp opinions. I once sat next to him at The Algonquin's Oak Room where we saw the late jazz stylist Susannah McCorkle. After the show, I commented on how much I enjoyed her shows even if they tended to be a bit long and chatty at times. He remarked, ... long and chatty has its merits – especially when its good and the chatter is so bright. And, he added, She's quite understated and I'm sure not everyone's cup of tea as opposed to some divas who are over-rated and in your face for an hour. Usually, the departing audience doesn't have a clue as to what they were talking about. Howard will be missed.

John Hoglund