Washington theater critic Joel Markowitz dies at 60

Joel Markowitz. Photo courtesy of Bruce Markowitz

Joel Markowitz, a connoisseur of and tastemaker for the Washington region’s theater scene who founded and edited the DC Metro Theater Arts website, died on Nov. 7 in Bethesda. He was 60. His brother Bruce Markowitz, said the cause of death was ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The theater writer was diagnosed in March.

Much of Markowitz’s professional life was dedicated to the promotion and criticism of the area’s performing arts, from the time he began freelancing after college in the 1980s to 2012, when he and his older brother Bruce founded DCMTA as a hub for theater news and reviews that ultimately expanded to cover New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The fourth son of Cantor Morris and Faye Markowitz, Joel Markowitz grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where he took to the arts at a young age with the encouragement of his father. He went on to attend Syracuse University, majoring in English and journalism, before moving to Washington in 1983 and making a name for himself initially as an interviewer of prominent theater personalities and the founder of Ushers Theater Group, which organized theatergoing trips up and down the East Coast.

But his interest wasn’t only in large productions. He was a champion of the entire form, promoting everything from high school productions to dinner theater, his brother said.

“He was a real champion of what he called the little guy,” Bruce Markowitz said. “He worked 18 hours a day, every day. And he kept working almost up until the last day of his life. He was totally dedicated to the site.”

Joel Markowitz’s passion for the performing arts was rivaled only by his love for his hometown Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills. He played goalie for his high school’s hockey team and remained a devotee of the sport through his adult life. And he and his brother attended the Super Bowl together in California in 1993, watching the Bills fall to the Dallas Cowboys, 52-17.

“We had a great time together, even though we wound up crying in our soup,” Bruce Markowitz said.
He described Joel Markowitz as a “loving and loyal brother” and a “tremendous uncle” to his nine nieces and nephews.

Joel Markowitz was an avid listener of cantorial music, and amassed a collection of cantorial recordings, according to Bruce.

Ari Roth, founding artistic director of Washington’s Mosaic Theater Company, described Joel Markowitz as a voracious student of Jewish culture and tradition.

“What I’ll always remember is Joel’s enthusiasm as a theater goer and in Jewish culture in general,” Roth said. “Joel was a very learned person, and his enthusiasm was completely non-elitist. There was no snobbishness and no hierarchy. He saw the theater as a pure value.”

Joel Markowitz also helped to launch the careers of numerous writers and performers, his brother said. DC Metro Theater Arts’ oldest writer is 90-year-old Richard Seff, a retired stage actor whom Markowitz had encouraged to write four years ago.

After Joel Markowitz’s diagnosis and was given DC Theatre Scene’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Seff wrote him a letter. “He said that Joel had given him a whole new career and made him feel young,” Bruce said.

The next day, a 23-year-old actor whom Joel Markowitz had pushed to move to Washington and pursue his career, came by to thank him for his encouragement.

“I said, ‘Joel, in 24 hours you’ve had a man who’s 90 thanking you for everything you’ve done for him and a young man who’s 23 doing the same,’” Bruce Markowitz said. “How many people can say that?”
Joel Markowitz is survived by his five brothers: Rabbi Chanan Markowitz, Bruce Markowitz, Stuart Markowitz, David Markowitz and Saul Markowitz.

jforetek@midatlanticmedia.com

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