In 1992, due to the magnanimous gift from Mr. and Mrs. Harold Reskin, the Blackstone Theatre enjoyed yet another rebirth as the MERLE RESKIN THEATRE. Since that time, the beloved theatre has served as the training ground for students of The Theatre School at DePaul University. Each season, the school offers a wide range of public programming for the community of Chicago. The Theatre School is proud to maintain a busy, working schedule in the theatre — and delighted to honor the tradition that this theatre has been full of life and creativity for a century!
Interview by Carolyn Kaplan, 1992
There is a compelling openness about Merle Muskal Reskin — more than enough to conceal her shyness. She would much rather be talking about myriad things rather than herself, but she must because her husband, Harold, has bestowed an enormous honor upon her: the gift of a theatre in her name.
Merle's name will become a permanent fixture on the historic Blackstone Theatre when the new marquee lights up, officially changing the name to the Merle Reskin Theatre. What Merle is not shy about expressing is her happiness, awe and gratitude for what Harold has done for her, Chicago, DePaul University, and most importantly, the students of The Theatre School who are the real beneficiaries of this philanthropic tour de force.
This magnanimous gift came about through Harold's friendship with DePaul University president the Rev. John T. Richardson, C.M. "Fr. Richardson and Harold became friends when Harold attended DePaul's College of Law (Harold graduated in 1953) and they have remained very close friends. He came to Harold a couple of years ago and told him the Blackstone Theatre was available for sale and was in danger of being torn down. At the same time DePaul's Theatre School was in need of a professional performance space and training ground for aspiring theatre artists. Harold loved the idea of making a contribution in order to help DePaul save the Blackstone." He and Fr. Richardson decided to name the theatre for Merle.
Who better to name a theatre for than Merle Reskin, a former actress, singer and patron of the arts? Equipped with an extraordinary voice, a streak of determination and hard work to buttress both, she accomplished a great deal in five professional years.
A very important aspect of Merle's life was her family. Hers was an artistic one, filled with warmth, intellect and laughter, and it was bursting with the sound of music. For Merle, an only child, music was as accessible, joyful, familiar and revered as a pair of skates might have been for the child down the block.
"My mother and father were nurturing and supportive. My aunt Ann also encouraged me, more than anybody. It was aunt Ann who said 'You can do it.' She taught me my first song: 'I'm a Roving Cowboy.'"
"By the time I was fifteen I was singing arias. I sang in all the grammar school productions and in high school, at the Latin School for Girls. After I graduated I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was also performing on television during the 1948-49 school year. Every Saturday I sang on the WPIX-TV Joe Bolton Open House, a variety show for young performers. Worthington Miner, the producer of 'Studio One' saw me in The Little Foxes at the American Academy and put me on the show as soon as I graduated. I sang and acted in more than a dozen 'Studio One' productions. I did two years of summer stock at Chevy Chase Theatre in Wheeling, where Betsy Palmer was my roommate. I was up for a part in the movie Marty. I didn't get it, but the item appeared in Kup's column and the William Morris Agency signed me because of it." Soon after, Merle became a member of the Screen Actors Guild, Actors' Equity and AFTRA. She also appeared on the Pulitzer Prize Playhouse in New York, Hawkins Falls, a Chicago television production, and sang with Etta Moten (Bess in Porgy and Bess) for two summers at the Chicago Fair. From 1952-54 Merle performed as Ensign Janet MacGregor in the Broadway production of South Pacific. Merle also sang for charitable organizations. "I sang for W.A.I.F, an organization for orphans founded by Jane Russell after World War II. I would sing Jewish songs for the elderly in Jewish homes during the holidays and sing Christmas songs at Children's Memorial Hospital and Cook County Hospital."
Merle made a television pilot called Wonder Window with Glen Tetley of the New York City Ballet and choreographer John Butler. As Miss Wonder, Merle was the star of the Mr. Rogers-like children's show. Though the series was never bought, it is a touching legacy for her children: daughter Leslie and her husband Paul Neilan; son Jim and his wife Rhonda; and grandchildren Sean, Spencer, Eric and Melanie.
Merle's priorities changed when she met Harold Reskin. "I met Harold on a blind date arranged by friends Sally and Miles Berger. Three months later we eloped, October 28, 1955." Although her professional career ended, she went on to work on charity boards and continued to make television commercials. For more than 30 years Merle has been the midwest regional audtioner for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Harold, too, is quite generous and believes charity should come from the heart, and not to gain recognition. A real estate entrepreneur who developed and named the city of Glendale Heights, Harold Reskin is also an avid polo player and the founder and owner of the Glendale Polo Club. On weekends he works with handicapped children in the Easter Seals program, teaching them to ride horses. "Even if he doesn't feel well himself, he's there because he feels it's important for these kids to ride. Harold is a very private man, but he's one of the kindest people I've ever known."
Merle describes Harold as "quietly philanthropic." "Harold gave the money so that the theatre would continue to exist and The Theatre School students would have a place to perform. The International Theatre Festival, several of Chicago's dance companies and other arts organizations also use the theatre. The theatre has been saved and it is probably one of the most beautiful in the country and I will continue to be involved in fundraising for The Theatre School student scholarship fund. Harold and I believe the theatre dedication is symbolic of our ongoing zest for life."