Victor Shargai, an actor, costume designer, interior designer, philanthropist, and Washington theater leader died on Christmas Eve at the age of 83 after a brief illness.
Shargai was the longtime Board Chair of the Helen Hayes Awards, and helped lead it into its present incarnation as theaterWashington.
He was born Sharaga, but he changed it to Shargai on the advice of the Mayor of Jerusalem, who told his father that “Shargai” was the correct way to spell and pronounce the name.
As a teenager, he bore a striking resemblance to the late Marlon Brando, and he took advantage of it. He took tap and acting lessons, and scored a slot on the Eddie Fisher television show. (In interviews, he hastened to point out that his brother-in-law was Eddie Fisher’s press agent).
He loved theater, and he when it was time for college he applied to, and was accepted at, the Old Vic Theatre School in London. One of his classmates, Jerry Silverman (better known as Gene Wilder), suggested he go to Berlin to work with a man unknown to Shargai – Bertolt Brecht.
He studied with Brecht, at the latter’s invitation, for a week and then returned to the States to do summer stock in Phoenicia, New York, at the Phoenicia Playhouse. There, he did costume design on the side – until he decided that he liked costume design more than acting. Eventually, he came to work with Florence Henderson and Barbra Streisand.
But – as most of you already know – theater is hard, even for someone as gifted as Shargai. One day he came home to find the walls of the apartment he shared with his partner John Aniello blackened as a result of a fire set next door by his neighbor, a problem drinker who ended up burning himself to death. Shargai and Aniello decided to move to Washington, where Aniello, a tariff expert, had a standing offer to work. Shargai and Aniello remained together until the latter’s death in 2006.
Once ensconced in the nation’s capital, Shargai found a job in interior design at W & J Sloane. He rose to a position of considerable importance there, and in 1973 founded his own firm, Victor Shargai and Associates. He began to hobnob with the artistic and in particular the theatrical leaders of the City. One of them, Betti Brown, was in the process of founding an organization to celebrate the very best in Washington theater. As she tells it, Shargai approached her one day and said, “we have to talk”.
The award program they cooked up together (and with the city’s other theater thought leaders) was called the Helen Hayes Awards, named after an iconic actor who came with Washington roots. “I’m not an actress any more,” she would tell Shargai, in Shargai’s delighted retelling. “I’m an award.”
“I think theater is, of all the performing arts,” Shargai once said, “the most approachable.”
In addition to serving as the longstanding Chair of the Helen Hayes Awards, and later theaterWashington, Shargai served on the Boards of the Washington Ballet, Studio Theatre, the Kennedy Center and Signature Theatre, among others.
Shargai is survived by his husband, Craig Pascal.
There is an outpouring of love from the theatre community on Victor Shargai’s Facebook page