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Jan 11, 2018 3:54 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Ethel Madsen Watt Dies January 8

Jan 16, 2018 3:17 PM

Ethel Madsen Watt of Southampton died on January 8, 2018, at Southampton Hospital, of the flu. She was 94.

She was born on August 27, 1923, in Brooklyn and was married to New Yorker and Daily News theater and music critic Douglas Watt for 58 years. She met him at the Daily News when she was in “Ballet Ballads”—which she later produced starring Carmen DeLavallade, and which began the career of renowned lighting designer Jules Fisher—and went there to ask for press to help ticket sales on the show. Bob Sylvester took one look at her and said, “Doug, this one’s for you,” survivors said.

She was always a champion of the underdog. Whether it was rescuing animals with no homes or a family friend who had so many speeding tickets the court was going to arrest him “until my mom reprimanded the judge that this ‘man had a family to support,’ and they let him go,” according to survivors.

Her first show as a performer was “Seven Lively Arts,” with music by Cole Porter, played by Benny Goodman, art by Salvador Dali, ballet music by Stravinsky, book by Ben Hecht and George Kaufman. Her last was, “Kiss Me Kate,” another Porter show. There were 12 in between, including “Carousel.” Porter loved to take Mrs. Watt and a couple of the other girls out in his chauffeur-driven Rolls and show them off. In the summers she performed with Guy Lombardo at Jones Beach.

During a cast party, Robert Moses showed up and she in no uncertain terms told him he had to leave. This was for the cast, not for his publicity.

She went on as a producer and was responsible for “Crimes of the Heart” moving to Broadway, had a hit show in Simon Grey’s, “Quartermaine’s Terms,” which was the show that started Kelsey Grammar’s career. She produced all the jazz greats in concert, Armstrong, Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, until she got a phone call from Duke Ellington saying “hey, you haven’t asked me!” She did right then, and that began a very close friendship between Mr. Ellington, Mrs. Watt, her husband and Mr. Ellington’s common-law wife, Evie.

Mr. Watt and Mr. Ellington collaborated on a musical version of Shaw’s, “Caesar and Cleopatra,” Mrs. Watt was producing, but the Shaw estate gave Mr. Watt permission to use his material but not Mr. Ellington.

Her biggest coup was when “Seesaw” opened on Broadway and, though it received excellent reviews, it was not a box office hit. Mrs. Watt, who was close to Michael Bennett and Cy Coleman, had a brilliant idea, according to The New York Times article of April 8, 1973. The show starred Ken Howard, Tommy Tune and Michelle Lee. John Lindsay was mayor at the time, and she thought he should step in for Ken Howard. He did, and the box office went through the roof. Mayor Lindsay and the city honored Mrs. Watt with a proclamation.

When Michael Bennett was working on “A Chorus Line,” at the Public Theater, he asked a chosen few people to give him notes, including the Shuberts, and Mrs. Watt.

In later years, she was a big supporter of the Astaire Awards, which her husband, a founder, and her daughter, Patricia, later ran.

She is survived by four children, Patricia, Katherine, Richard and James.

Funeral arrangements are under the direction of the O’Connell-Rothwell Funeral Home in Southampton.

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