Joan Apt, an innovator who put Pittsburgh on the map as a theatrical hub with the launch of the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1974, died Feb. 15. She was 93.
Apt, remembered for her vibrancy, strength and determination, had been an active force in the city’s cultural and philanthropic scene for years before she and PPT co-founder Margaret Rieck resolved to create a “quality, professional theater” here, Apt said in an interview with the Chronicle in 2014.
Always passionate about the arts, Apt also knew how to fundraise. She grew up attending shows in Pittsburgh as a child and went on to minor in theater at Wheaton College. When she returned to Pittsburgh, she became actively involved on the board of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, volunteered for what was then the United Jewish Federation and brought the America-Israel Cultural Foundation to Pittsburgh.
Once she and Rieck decided to start a theater, they resolved to raise all the money necessary for the theater’s first season — $350,000 — before it even opened.
“We had invited a very large group to the fundraising party,” Apt told the Chronicle. “Friends and acquaintances and community leaders and foundation leaders. We had all the money up front. We were determined not to be an albatross to the funding community or the community at large.”
Apt’s vision was for the PPT to be a “producing theater,” creating all aspects of its shows in-house, including the costumes and scenery.
“Joan brought producing theater to Pittsburgh and treated it as her child,” said Stuart Miller, a PPT trustee, in an interview prior to the opening of the theater’s 40th season. “She brought it to fruition, and she didn’t walk away. She hung around; she attended board meetings and was supportive financially. She watched her child grow. And we’re very, very strong.”
The theater is now in its 45th season, under the artistic direction of Marya Sea Kaminski, who came on board in 2018, succeeding Ted Pappas, who served in that position for 18 years.
“Joan Apt is the reason I felt like I could move here and do this job,” said Kaminski. “She laid the groundwork not only for so many amazing institutions, but also the pathways here for women and for leaders.”
Apt was serious about her mission yet never lost sight of the joy.
She helped “create and maintain an artistic home for some of the world’s finest playwrights, actors, directors and designers and in the process established Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as one of the great theater towns in our country,” Pappas said in a eulogy at her funeral service at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Feb. 18. “She was modest about this breath-taking achievement. Civic duty aside, she thought it was all terrific fun. No one, but no one, loved an opening night more than Joan.”
Referring to Apt as his “theatrical teammate for many, many years,” Pappas noted he never once saw her lose “her focus, her humor, or her idealism.”
Yet practicality did not take a back seat to vision.
“‘Produce anything you want,’ she once advised me, ‘as long as it is absolutely wonderful and you can find a way to pay for it,’” Pappas recalled.
“She was my Auntie Mame,” he said, referring to the intelligent and fun-loving character in the musical of the same name. “My dear friend and guide who opened new windows for me each and every day. Work and play with Joan by my side was a banquet. But when I needed her to be tough, she transformed into General Dwight D. Eisenhower, but with much better make-up. And like a general, she marched into the troops and led us all to victory, show after show, season after season.”
Describing Apt as a “force of nature,” Rabbi Aaron Bisno, spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom, stressed she was “genuine and generous, creative and kind, determined and determinative.”
“Who among us can fail to remember the role Joan played as a conduit for individuals and community, between patrons and performers and the wider populace, the wider community, for whom she fashioned public works that brought so much brilliance and so much beauty into a place, to Pittsburgh, which she so truly loved,” Bisno said.
Apt also helped establish both the American Wind Symphony and the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival.
Born on the Fourth of July, 1926 in Wilkinsburg, Apt lived in Pittsburgh most of her life. Her grandfather was Pittsburgh industrialist and civic leader Isaac W. Frank, and she was the daughter of Cecelia Kaplan Frank and Robert Jay Frank, an engineer and the vice-president for sales of Copperweld Steel Company.
Apt graduated from the Winchester Thurston School in 1944. She married Jerome Apt Jr. in 1947. The couple lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, for a short time, then moved to Pittsburgh in 1949.
She served as citywide chair of the United Way’s Community Fund, city-county chair of the American Cancer Society, chair of WQED’s Ford Foundation challenge campaign, and was one of the founders of the Woman’s Division of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.
Her civic roles were only eclipsed by her profound familial relationships, setting an example for those she loved.
“When she died this weekend, the Cleveland cousins were visiting the Philly cousins,” said granddaughter Sarah Apt at her funeral. “So, you could say she died while we were doing something she loved. She knew the best gift she could give us was each other.”
“One of Joan’s most honored achievements was her devotion to her late daughter and my late wife Judy, who passed away in 2000,” said her son-in-law, Richard Nathenson, in an email.
Apt is survived by her brother, Alan I.W. Frank of Pittsburgh; her son, Jay of Pittsburgh; grandchildren David Nathenson, Michael Nathenson, Robert Nathenson, Steven Nathenson, Sarah Apt and Ru Emmons; and five great-grandchildren.
A celebration of Apt’s life will hosted by the PPT on March 16.
“I never met a more alive person, more present, more excited about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after that,” Pappas said. “She always looked ahead, always forward, and she took all of us along for the great adventure.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at