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Deen Kogan, 87, who opened Society Hill Playhouse and introduced Philly to street theater

Deen Kogan, 87, of Society Hill, spent her life creating a thriving theater and mentoring actors.

Deen Kogan and her husband opened the Society Hill Playhouse in 1960.
Deen Kogan and her husband opened the Society Hill Playhouse in 1960.Read moreOnline photos

Deen Kogan, 87, cofounder of the Society Hill Playhouse and a woman who nurtured the arts in the city for decades, died at home March 28 while recovering from a recent back injury.

In 1960, she and her husband, Jay, opened the playhouse that became a platform for experimental and avant garde theater. Her passion for the arts and her community extended throughout Ms. Kogan's life as she introduced street theater to Philadelphia, started a youth theater project, and founded a school for the arts. She was also co-owner of Port Richmond Books.

"She was a powerhouse," said family friend Devon Allen.

Born in Cumberland County, Md., Ms. Kogan came to Philadelphia, where she attended Temple University, graduating in 1951. She and her husband then attended the University of Colorado to earn master's degrees in the arts. They lived in Europe for a year, working at the Piccolo Theater in Milan, Italy, and at a theater in Zurich, Switzerland.

She was an accomplished director, actress, and producer, her friends said.

The Kogans opened their playhouse as Philadelphia's "off-Broadway" theater for contemporary American and European playwrights. As the theater became more successful, it offered mainstream, long-running plays, such as Nunsense, Menopause the Musical, Lafferty's Wake, and Three Penny Opera.

Ms. Kogan performed as Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera. Playhouse premieres included Jean Genet's The Blacks, Brian Friel's The Volunteers, and productions such as Rocky Horror.

In 1986, she designed a cabaret theater — the Red Room — in the playhouse to introduce new playwrights and mystery writers, resume experimental work, and host readings for plays never produced.

From the start, Ms. Kogan served as managing director of the Society Hill Playhouse and worked as its artistic director beginning in 1993. She held both positions until she closed and sold the theater in 2016 to a developer who demolished the building and its shimmering mosaic by Isaiah Zagar, to construct luxury housing on Eighth Street, between Lombard and South. At the time, Ms. Kogan told a reporter she was sad to close the playhouse. Then she quoted from Michael Cristofer's play The Shadow Box, concluding, "Nothing Lasts Forever."

"She and Jay … they were just brilliant people who had multi talents," said Susan Turlish, who worked on many projects with them until moving to New York more than 10 years ago. "The theater was her first love, then books, then Philly."

Turlish said she was among "hundreds of children" the couple mentored. From 1970 to 1983, the Kogans ran the Philadelphia Youth Theatre, teaching play production, dance, acting, and set design. Actor Kevin Bacon is among the school's alumni.

While desegregation of theaters was still a concern, Ms. Kogan created Philadelphia's first Street Theater with integrated casts from 1968 to 1970, bringing productions to neighborhoods on a flatbed truck that served as the stage.

Ms. Kogan was an avid reader and especially enjoyed mysteries. Her husband had long had an interest in owning a bookstore. When he died in 1993, Ms. Kogan asked a recently retired friend, Greg Gillespie, if he wanted to partner in owning a bookshop. Gillespie said the Kogans became part of his extended family after he auditioned for his first play at Society Hill years earlier.

"She bought it," Gillespie said of the bookstore. "She was the biz person, I was the book guy." They stocked the shelves with 400,000 books and invited authors to do readings.

Among other interests, Ms. Kogan enjoyed traveling, was a baseball fan, and had a fondness for opera, jazz and the Mummers. She chaired national Bouchercon Mystery Writer Conferences in 1989 and 1998 in Philadelphia. She was founder of the Mid Atlantic Mystery Book Association and was an active board member for the International Association of Crime Writers. She served on Temple's library board and in 1974 was named a Distinguished Daughter of Temple University.

"Deen will be truly missed," said her sister, Lynne Cutler. "I loved her dearly."

Ms. Kogan was preceded in death by her husband and by her brother, Stephen Falk. Ms. Kogan requested that there be no public services, her sister said. She will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Donations in her honor may be made to the Philadelphia Foundation, (Jay and Deen Kogan Fund), 1835 Market St., Suite 2410, Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.