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Gladys Lavitan, former ‘Queen of the theater in Charlotte,’ dies at age 97

By Dannye Romine Powell
dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

In the 1940s and 1950s, when important folks came to Charlotte, Gladys Lavitan interviewed them for her “Woman’s World” show on WAYS-AM.

Once, a famous actress visited, and she said to Lavitan, “How can you stand living in this little, tiny town? It’s got nothing to offer anybody.”

Lavitan replied: “Then you should go somewhere else right now.”

Lavitan, who was 97, died Friday at Southminster Retirement Community, where she had gone Thursday after a fall at her home on Roswell Avenue.

For years, Lavitan, a tiny dynamo, acted in almost every theater in Charlotte and gave spirited reviews of books to hundreds of groups.

She once said of her own book club members: “They won’t buy a book unless I recommend it.”

“She was such a charismatic person,” said Charles Hadley, retired Queens University linguistics professor and a coach of Southern accents.

“Charisma is a characteristic hard to describe, but you know it when it’s there,” he said. “It’s a kind of an electricity. Gladys had that if she stayed home and talked.”

Hadley and wife Jane directed Lavitan in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Central Piedmont’s Summer Theater. “She played Big Mama, and she did it superbly,” Hadley said. “When she walked on stage, no matter where the lights were, they shone on her.”

Lavitan’s acting career began at age 12 in 1928 when she gave a reading of Sutton Vane’s “Outward Bound” at Charlotte’s Carnegie Free Library on North Tryon Street.

Over the years, she won many awards, including a Mint Museum Drama Guild Best Actress Award for “Brecht on Brecht” and another at the Little Theater for “Majority of One.”

Her favorite roles were in “On Golden Pond,” “Anastasia” and “The Lion in Winter.”

In 1971, the late Observer arts critic Dick Banks wrote: “If you have to pick one queen of the theater in Charlotte, the crown would have to glisten above the raven hair of the petite, vivacious Gladys Lavitan.”

She officially bid goodbye to the stage in fall 2007 at Theatre Charlotte, with another reading of “Outward Bound.”

Marcia Simon, who was a child when she first met Lavitan, described her as “one of the most multi-talented individuals I’ve ever known in this community.”

A long-time Hebrew school teacher, Lavitan served for many years on the board of directors of Temple Beth El in Charlotte.

The first child of Max and Julia Rich Kahn, Lavitan was born Sept. 14, 1916, in Augusta, Ga. Less than a year later, the family moved to Charlotte, where Max Kahn opened a men’s clothing store on East Trade Street.

After graduating from Central High, Lavitan studied acting in New York. Back in Charlotte, Lavitan met her future husband, veterinarian M. J. Lavitan, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent him here to inspect Mecklenburg County’s cows for milk impurities.

Soon they were married at the old Hotel Charlotte on West Trade. In a conversation in 2012, Lavitan recalled that she wore a peach colored wedding suit and weighed 89 pounds.

The couple had one child, Douglas Kahn, a lawyer.

Gladys Lavitan had said she always loved Charlotte, especially when she was young.

“You could walk uptown and every step you took – from Belk to Ivey’s to Efird’s – you’d see somebody you knew.”

Services for Gladys Lavitan will be at 4 p.m. Sunday at Temple Beth El. The shiva minyan will be at 7 p.m. Monday at Temple Beth El.

Powell: 704-358-5230
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