Suzanne F. Roberts, 98, an exuberant and unstoppable figure who left her mark on Philadelphia’s civic, broadcast, and performing arts worlds for decades, died Monday, April 20, at her Center City home.
The announcement of her death came from her family and followed several months of declining health. As news circulated, praise poured in from here and elsewhere.
“She was a remarkable woman,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a close friend. “She was always upbeat."
Mrs. Roberts cut a wide swath as an actress, civic educator, children’s therapist, broadcaster, and philanthropist, and a just plain lively person. She came from one wealthy family, married into what became another, and used her privileged platform to create projects for the public good.
But the progression wasn’t immediate. “When she married my dad, he didn’t have two cents to rub together,” said son Brian. “My dad was a struggling, aspiring entrepreneur.”
Later, she didn’t just sign checks or sit in board meetings. “I don’t care for boards,” Mrs. Roberts said in 2003. “I’d much rather be doing. I was never a lady who lunched, never wanted to be.”
By birth she was a Fleisher, daughter of Alfred W. Fleisher, real-estate magnate and philanthropist. By marriage, she was a Roberts, spouse of Ralph J. Roberts, founder and chairman of Comcast Corp., now the nation’s largest cable provider and a global media firm.
She and her husband used much of their wealth to support and enrich the city’s cultural life. “She’s a very dedicated person,” her husband told The Inquirer in 2001. “And when she decides to work on a project, there’s no stopping her.”
Born in Philadelphia, Mrs. Roberts was only 7 when her father died in 1928. A cofounder of the real-estate firm Mastbaum Bros. & Fleisher, he was a philanthropist, prison reformer, and supporter of Jewish causes.
Her civic-minded mother later married Leon Sunstein, another prominent leader. Continuing the family tradition, the Fleisher children became volunteers and philanthropists.
She grew up in a comfortable home in Elkins Park, attending Oak Lane Country Day School in Cheltenham Township and then Harcum Junior College in Bryn Mawr.
After completing her local schooling, she moved to New York and studied the Stanislavski Method of acting at the Tamara Daykarhanova School of the Stage.
A 5-foot-9 beauty, she turned the head of Ralph Roberts when they met as teens at a dance. They married in 1942 and lived “a life of romance and fun,” she told friends. He would later say he had never met anyone so endearing, exhilarating, and confounding.
“She had a voracious appetite for life,” said daughter Lisa.
In the 1940s, Mrs. Roberts sold war bonds and performed for the USO and the Treasury Department. She acted in theaters around the area, never accepting pay, mindful that others needed the money more than she did.
She was a born performer. On Broadway and on many of Philadelphia’s biggest stages, her roles included Eleanor in The Lion in Winter, the lead in Lysistrata, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“Ralph came every night to see me in every show,” she told Philadelphia City Paper in 2005. “Tears would roll down from his eyes during emotional scenes, even though he’d seen the play 10 times or more.”
She last took to the stage in 2001, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. The play’s format allowed her to deliver her lines sitting down.
As a media host, Mrs. Roberts performed on the award-winning radio show Within Our Gates on WFIL, dramatizing the lives of outstanding citizens such as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and abolitionist Lucretia Mott.
As a voice actress, she played roles in a CBS show, A Dramatization of the Classics, and described news events in the weekly show This Week in Philadelphia. Afterward, NBC named her the “Number One Radio Actress in Philadelphia.”
Her radio work led Mayor Richardson Dilworth and U.S. Sen. Joseph Clark to invite her to write and direct their radio and TV campaigns. Mrs. Roberts thus became a pioneer in modern media. In 1952, she turned her experience into one of the first books on the subject, The Candidate and Television.
“She was way ahead of her time,” said her son, the chairman and chief executive of Comcast.
Appearing in commercials for products ranging from refrigerators to children’s furniture, Mrs. Roberts was a frequent presence on local TV. Her biggest success came in 2001 when, at age 80, sensing a lack of programming for seniors, she started five-minute segments called Seeking Solutions With Suzanne. They aired on Comcast’s channel CN8 and CNN Headline News for almost two decades.
In the segments, which later expanded to a half-hour, she underwent cataract surgery, took tap-dancing lessons, belly-danced, and rode a motorcycle, all with the tape rolling. The programs won two Mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards.
“Did you ever want to feel the roar of the pavement, the sun in your face, the wind in your hair?” Mrs. Roberts said into the camera during the motorcycle segment.
On the air, Mrs. Roberts appeared game for almost anything. She urged viewers to follow suit: “If I can do it, you can, too!”
Kelly Ryan, her longtime producer who became a friend, was asked by an Inquirer reporter in 2003 if there was anything Mrs. Roberts wouldn’t try. “Not yet,” Ryan said.
In a segment last year, Mrs. Roberts interviewed Rendell about his having Parkinson’s disease. The two were friends; she agreed to help him go public with his medical news.
“People actually watch Suzanne,” Rendell said. “She’s got a very good, innate sense of letting the person she’s interviewing have their head.”
Since Parkinson’s patients practice boxing to improve balance, he gave her boxing gloves. He also put on gloves, as would a sparring partner. “She punched me on the air,” he said.
Mrs. Roberts became a therapist for troubled children by the most indirect of routes. She, her husband, and their children took a 1970 trip to the Navajo Nation, where they volunteered for a month. Her daughter Catherine Clifton said the trip was life-changing. “It was important to her, when we took family trips, to give back to others," Clifton said.
While there, Mrs. Roberts volunteered at the psychiatric ward of a Public Health Service hospital in Gallup, N.M. Using techniques learned in acting class, she was able to reach withdrawn children. She was invited back to teach her methods to the hospital staff.
In Philadelphia, she worked with troubled youngsters at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. A documentary of her work, Discoveries in Communication, was shown at the International Convention of Child Psychiatry, and she began traveling internationally to demonstrate her methods.
She became a part-time therapist for preschoolers at the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center in Philadelphia while also attending night school. At age 58, she earned a bachelor’s degree in counseling from Antioch University, and two years later, a master’s degree in special education and counseling from Antioch.
She volunteered and supported projects in the areas of veterans’ affairs, HIV/AIDS education, workplace safety, addiction treatment and counseling, and race relations.
She and her husband donated millions to the arts, especially theater and dance. They also supported initiatives in higher education and advances in medicine.
The Suzanne F. Roberts Cultural Development Fund, which she created, encouraged dance and theater companies in the area, making her one of their largest supporters.
A decade ago, Mrs. Roberts began supporting BalletX, a contemporary dance company in the city. “Mrs. Roberts makes you feel seen and heard,” said director Christine Cox. “She looks you in the eye and makes you feel like one of the most special people in the world. She believes in you and the artists in Philadelphia. She brings joy, laughter, and energy into the world. Her curiosity and passion for life is palpable.”
Perhaps her most high-profile project was the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on the Avenue of the Arts. Home to the Philadelphia Theatre Company, it opened in 2007. At the time, it was the city’s first new theater in a decade. She donated money, attended performances, and offered constructive criticism.
Paige Price, the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s producing artistic director, summed Mrs. Roberts’ impact: “Suzanne had a transformative effect on the cultural landscape of Philadelphia — her belief and dedication to all the artistic talent in the region will be felt for generations to come. ... For decades, she has always offered us her unwavering support and friendship. She was a generous performer at heart, and all future performances at the theatre will celebrate her truly unique spirit.”
In 2014, she and her husband received the Philadelphia Award, recognizing their longtime contributions to the city.
Ralph Roberts died in 2015. In addition to her son and daughters, she is survived by son Ralph Jr.; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A son, Douglas, died in 2011.
Her life will be celebrated after the effects of COVID-19 have passed.