The first time I met Paul Harris was about 20 years ago in a crowded men’s restroom. It was the intermission of a local play.
We were standing at our respective urinals, observing the male tradition of keeping eyes downward and not speaking, when I suddenly heard this booming voice: “Too much explanation!”
In three words, he summed up what I couldn’t quite put my finger on. He fell silent, finished his business, left, and then a few of the strangers left behind began debating the point.
At the time, I didn’t know he was Paul Harris — the namesake of a playhouse at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas I had been long attending — or that he was a founding member of the theater department.
That became much clearer as I got to know him, watch some his well-directed shows and see him act (he often had a small-town simplicity onstage that belied his extensive training).
At a memorial service earlier this month, educators, former students, friends and family came together to salute Harris following his death of natural causes at the hearty age of 90.
There were a lot of facts shared — about his World War II navy service, his Ph.D. from Stanford, his building up of a tiny department — but the memorable moments were in the small stories.
“He wrote his own eulogy,” daughter Amy pointed out. “Yes, he was very controlling, but in a very benevolent way.”
Amy recalled how her father had wanted to be a journalist when he was young. A teacher told him, “Reporting is not your strength, because you’re always dramatizing.” (Today, that quality might have made him world-famous.)
Life at early UNLV was not easy. He’d teach all day, “always come home for dinner” and then be back at the theater for a production. Some would argue that in the early days, a director had to do it all or it didn’t get done (of course, some would argue that still holds true today).
In 1989, when he retired, the new theater in the Fine Arts building was named after him. He was very moved by the tribute, Amy said, and continued to work locally until shortly before his death.
One of the surprise speakers was Bob Ballard, the general manager of Palm Eastern Mortuary, who was working the service. He said he had only recently met Harris. Someone laughed: “You mean when they brought in the body?” No, he said. He had recently acted in a play with him.
“I grew up as a jock and was too cool for all that dancing and stage stuff,” he said. “My wife got me to audition for ‘The Dining Room’ that he was directing. He had such love for what he was doing that it was contagious. He was so patient, so kind, that he made this rookie feel good about what he was doing.”
(Former Las Vegas Little Theatre president Paul Thornton shares a few thoughts about Harris on today’s Vegas Voice blog. Check it out at lvrj.com/blogs/vegasvoice.)
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat
@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas NV 89125.