August 12, 2005
Carl Harms, Equity Councillor Emeritus, Dies
Carl Harms, actor, puppeteer and long-time Board member of Actors’ Equity Association who helped steer the national Union for more than fifty years, died on August 11 in New York City after a short illness. He was 94.
Born in Chicago, Harms began his career as a walk on in Fritz Lieber’s Shakespearean Theatre in 1930, appearing in six productions in repertory. He was part of the core group of actors whose work formed the basis for the WPA’s Federal Theatre. It was through the Puppet Project sponsored by the WPA that Harms learned to carve and make puppets. He participated in the First American Puppetry Festival in Detroit in 1936 and was a charter member of the Puppeteers of America.
Not limited to acting or puppetry, Harms joined the Illinois Theatre as part of the ballet corps in OH SAY CAN YOU SWING. He then joined the Great Northern Theatre’s Federal Ballet where he performed with such dance luminaries Katherine Dunham, Grace Cornell and Ruth Page.
After a few years, he realized he was too old to make a career in ballet (he had started at the age of 26) and so Harms returned to acting, taking part in a touring production that brought him to New York City and the 1939 World’s Fair. He called on his training with puppets and landed a job with the Marionettes, joining Bil Baird in 1940.
With the close of the World’s Fair, Harms found himself as an expedition cook for Navy Commander Foster in a five-month tour based in the Galapagos as part of a plan to protect the Panama Canal. In 1942, Harms signed up as a Merchant Marine, although he had been a conscientious objector to World War II. He served on a tanker in the African Invasion and later on a cargo ship deployed to the Normandy Invasion and to the Battle of the Bulge, where his ship arrived as the troops were moving out.
Back on American soil, Harms was offered a position with an acting company in New York City and he promptly hung up his uniform. He worked in summer stock with the Putnam County Playhouse with Molly Picon and others. In 1948 he joined again with Bil Baird, working on the television show “The Adventures of Snarky Parker,” a daily program directed by Yul Brynner. Shortly thereafter, Harms met his future wife Marianne, an artist who also worked with Baird. They married in 1960.
With the growing popularity of television, Harms appeared in numerous Hallmark shows including “The Tempest” with Roddy McDowell and Richard Burton, “Barefoot in Athens” with Peter Ustinov, Julie Harris, and Lynn Fontanne, and “A Cry of Angels” with Walter Slezak and Maureen O’Hara. He also worked on the popular children’s program “Howdy Doody” and had a supporting role in “Johnny Jupiter,” a live television program that was among the first programs to move to film for broadcast. As part of Baird’s company, Harms appeared on numerous television shows, including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” ”Show of Shows,” and toured to India and the Soviet Union with the troupe.
One of the highlights for Harms was his involvement with the Gemini Space Walk in 1967 and the 1969 The Moon Project. In both instances NBC retained the services of the Bil Baird Theatre to build replicas of the spacecrafts and to act out what was happening for the viewing public, including the first walk on the moon. Harms continued to work on similar projects for Apollo 12, 14 and 15.
Stage was still his first love, and in 1951 Harms made his Broadway debut in Yip Harburg’s musical FLAHOOLEY, in which he had a supporting role and made the puppets. He continued his stage work, appearing on Broadway in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING with Clare Booth Luce, MAN IN THE MOON and appeared in Jose Quintero’s production of THE GIRL ON THE VIA FLAMINIA at Circle In The Square. Other stage appearances included WILD DUCK and JOLLY ANNA (a revised version of FLAHOOLEY) with Mitzi Gaynor, Bobby Clarke and John Dea as well as productions at the Walnut Street Theatre, and Missouri Rep. Harms also directed stock and regional productions.
It was in the 1950’s that Carl became actively involved with Actors’ Equity Association. Already a member of the Union since 1946, he decided to dedicate much of his time to helping shape the future of Equity. Over the years, he served on numerous negotiating committees, including the historic first negotiation between the Union and the League of Resident Theatres in 1966. Harms was one of the leaders who fought to create a Pension Fund for actors and in 1960; after Broadway was shut down by a strike for seven days, one was created for Equity members which became the blueprint for pensions throughout the theatre industry.
He was a long-time member of The Council, Equity’s governing body, and was active in countless committees and served as President of the Equity Realty Corporation, where he led the campaign to purchase the building at 165 West 46th Street where the national headquarters for the Union is now housed. Carl served as the Recording Secretary for the Union for twelve years and was elected to the position of First Vice President in 1973, a position in which he served for three years. He was a founder and the current President of the Actors' Equity Foundation, where he oversaw/administered the prestigious Clarence Derwent, St. Clair Bayfield, Joe Callaway, Paul Robeson, Richard Seff and Roger Sturtevant Awards. Until his death, Harms served as the Chair of the Staff Pension Fund and as the chair and secretary of the Equity-League Pension and Health Funds. In addition to Actors’ Equity Association, Carl has been a member of AFTRA, SAG, SSDC and ASCAP throughout his career.
Councillor Emeritus Carl Harms (L) and Tracy Inman (Alvin Ailey School) at the 2004 AEA Paul Robeson Awards.
“Carl was first and foremost a gentleman, but he was also a tireless advocate for the members of our Union,” said Equity President Patrick Quinn. “The changes that he helped to bring about – whether they were through his diligence in contract negotiations or as one of those pioneers who led the fight to establish our Pension Fund in 1960 -- have forever changed the lives of every member and will continue to do so as long as there is an Actors’ Equity Association. I loved him dearly, and everyone whose life he touched feels as I do. All of us will miss Carl so much, but I consider myself blessed that I knew and learned so much from him.”
Carl Harms is survived by his daughters Merrill Mecklem Piera of Sundown, New York and Sarah Greer Mecklem of Kingston, New York, as well as the 45,000 members of his “Equity Family.” There will be a private burial later this week. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in his name to: The Goddard Riverside Community Center, Project Reachout/Day Program – The Other Place, 593 Columbus Avenue, New York City or Planned Parenthood of New York. A memorial service will be held in the near future.