Leon Zionts, whose love of theater defined his professional and personal life, died on Nov. 10 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 61.
Prior to his death, Zionts and his wife Nancy spent their evenings attending musical theater productions, many of which featured actors who had previously worked in shows the couple produced.
Zionts and Nancy met and fell in love while studying at Hebrew University in Israel. At one point, when Nancy returned to the U.S. for Passover, Zionts attempted to send her a dozen roses on her birthday. But with his small allowance, he could only afford seven.
“He wired me seven roses for my birthday,” Nancy recalled. “The card read, ‘All that I have, I give to you.’ From then on, the only flowers we exchanged were seven roses.”
A few days before Zionts’ death, a friend brought the couple a vase of roses. After he died, Nancy looked at the flowers more closely. “There were seven pink roses. It was such a beautiful coincidence. To me, they were the last flowers I will receive from him.”
Married in 1986, the couple shared a mutual passion: “Everything about theater, we absolutely loved,” Nancy said.
Though Zionts worked as an attorney after graduating with a law degree from Duquesne University, after a heart attack in 1996, he and Nancy decided to reassess.
“Our kids were 6 and 8. We reevaluated our life and he went back to the theater,” Nancy said.
Zionts’ first role following bypass surgery was one he’d long be identified with: Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I literally went every night with a defibrillator under my feet,” Nancy remembered. “I thought it was a good insurance policy to have with me.”
Becky Toth was in the orchestra during that production. She later cast the actor in “Urinetown” at Stage 62.
“Leon had this innate ability to not only bask in the love others had for him in a way I would be uncomfortable with, but he could accept it and would return that love tenfold,” Toth recalled. “He was able to give it back. That’s the legacy that anyone that worked with him will remember.”
They’ll also remember his commitment.
“He and Nancy were always there,” Toth said. “You never felt like you owed them anything. Leon was just there for you. He always looked out for the needs of everyone around him.”
Zionts began producing musicals with Bruce E.G. Smith in 2008, forming the boutique musical theater production company Front Porch Theatricals. Nancy joined the company in 2014.
“We became producers,” Smith said. “We always joked about the musical ‘The Producers.’ He wanted to be in the image of Max Bialystock and I was Leo Bloom.”
They staged productions of popular, well-known shows like “In the Heights,” “Parade” and “Big Fish.”
“The heart and soul of the company is Leon and that will never be replaced,” Smith said.
While not all of the musicals they produced had Jewish content, “they’ve always been stories about character and family and social justice,” Nancy said. “Social justice was always an important part of Leon — as a feminist, as a supporter of LGBTQ rights, as a supporter of immigrant rights.”
Equally important was using actors with Pittsburgh connections, said Smith, who also noted that the company paid its interns and worked to create an atmosphere of respect by providing food tables for the actors.
Zionts continued to act while producing with Front Porch Theatricals.
Elinor Nathanson, co-founder of ShpielBurgh Productions, said Zionts performed in all three works the company produced since its founding in 2016.
“When I wrote ‘Hadassah,’ I suggested Leon to Sara Stock Mayo, who was directing, for the role of Mordechai. We joked that we used divine casting because we never use auditions and Leon was divine in so many ways. He was 100% on board.”
Zionts often sang both the U.S. national anthem and “Hatikvah” at many public events, including the memorial service at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum on Oct. 28, 2018, following the shooting at the Tree of Life building.
“He regularly sang at the Jewish Federation’s annual meeting for years and years,” said Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Marketing Director Adam Hertzman. “When we were looking for ways to honor the lives lost on Oct. 27 and introduce the program appropriate to the tone of the event, Leon was a natural fit.”
In a tribute suited to both an actor and producer, Zionts’ funeral was standing room only. He was remembered by colleagues, friends and families through stories and song.
“It was astonishing to hear the remarkable stories told and the memories of those who spoke,” said Jeanne Drennan, who knew Zionts through her work as the executive director of the Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh. “I think Leon projected a belief that everything was going to be wonderful. It’s very hard to resist that kind of enthusiasm, and who would want to?”
Zionts is survived by Nancy and their two daughters, Allison Laine and Dani Lyon; his mother, Shirley; his sister and brother, as well as 18 nieces, nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews. pjc
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org