Dr. Larry Soller, a member of the Arizona theater scene since 1966 and Phoenix College (PC) professor in the Speech and Drama departments from 1966 to 2006, passed away in October 2022, in Phoenix, Arizona, at the home he shared with Sara, his wife of 56 years.
Born on May 26, 1942, in Huron, South Dakota, Larry moved with his parents and older sister to Minneapolis, where he graduated from DeLaSalle High School. He earned his Bachelor's degree at Mankato State University in Minnesota and received a Master's degree in Acting and Directing from The University of Kansas in Lawrence. There, he met theater graduate student Sara Thornhill. They married in August 1966 and moved to Phoenix, where Larry took a position at PC. He taught at PC for more than 40 years, directed over 50 plays, and established the Film Studies program. From 1969-1971, the Sollers spent two years at the University of Georgia, Athens, GA, where Larry received his Ph.D. in Theatre and Dramatic Literature and became Dr. Soller.
At PC, Dr. Soller mentored and inspired countless students, many of whom have succeeded in theater and the arts. Ben Tyler, Executive Director of the Arizona Centennial Theatre Foundation, a PC theater student in the late 1970s, worked with Dr. Soller in a production of Midsummer Night's Dream, his first Shakespeare production. "I don't think I had done a Shakespeare monologue, yet I was cast as Oberon," Ben said. "I may have been 21 or 22 years old, and to play the king of the fairies was intimidating, but Dr. Soller made Shakespeare less intimidating, more understandable. By the time I got to the end of the production, I loved Shakespeare and wanted to do more of it."
Mark Mettes, President & CEO of Herberger Theater Center, recalled his time as a student at Phoenix College from 1987 -1989, working with Mr. Soller. "I was lighting designer for two of Dr. Soller's shows at PC: Loot, a dark comedy, and Fools, a farce. Dr. Soller was very to the point and didn't chit-chat. He was serious about his craft. But when he laughed, you took note." Mark eventually transferred to the University of Arizona for a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Performing Arts. However, he credited his time at PC for an experience he would never have received if he had gone straight to university. "At PC, I designed seven shows plus a concert," Mark said. "I had so much more hands-on experience–experimenting, learning, doing."
As a faculty member, Dr. Soller continued to work as a professional actor, on stage and in films and television, including General Hospital, Young Riders, and made-for-TV movies on ABC television and Showtime. After his experience with Dr. Soller at PC in a Shakespeare play, Ben Tyler went on to perform with Southwest Shakespeare Company, where he worked alongside Larry. Shakespearean roles were Dr. Soller's favorite. "We did The Tempest together," Ben said. "Then we were in The Fantastics at Phoenix Theatre, which was so cool to me, having been his student and then fellow actor."
In 2016, Ben had the chance to direct Dr. Soller as Henry Canby in an Arizona Centennial Theatre Foundation production of Arizona Territory at the Tempe Center for the Arts, broadcast live on KTAR. "It just felt very natural," Ben recalled. "Larry knew how things operated, and we never crossed swords ever. If he was the director, he was okay with that. If he was the actor, he was okay with that. Larry knew how to adjust his role in a production. It made him so easy to work with."
Dr. Soller earned membership in Actor's Equity and The Screen Actors Guild as a professional actor. He was also a champion of quality theater at Actors Lab, Stagebrush Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Arizona Jewish Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, Southwest Shakespeare Company, and the Arizona Centennial Theatre Foundation.
He received the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Excellence in Education Award. Two of the shows he directed at PC, Simpatico and A Few Good Men, won regional awards in the highly respected American College Theater Festival. After many years at PC, he established the Dr. Larry Soller Theatre Scholarship to support the next generation of Phoenix College thespians.
Dr. Christina Marin, PC’s Program Director for Theatre and Film first met Dr. Soller at the Founders' Day event in 2020 during PC’s Centennial Festivities. “We spent over an hour sharing stories as we walked to the theatre building and sat in my office,” Dr. Marin said. “Dr. Soller was instrumental in the negotiations to grant theatre students access to District Tournament Funds to compete in the Kennedy Center's Regional American College Theatre Festival. This gives our students the opportunity of a lifetime, one that for many of them would not be possible without access to this funding. Everything Larry Soller did was student-centered and his legacy lives on in each and every one of them.”
After retiring from teaching and directing, Larry pursued various volunteer opportunities. During his 18 years at the Desert Botanical Garden, the Horticulture Department recognized him for 5,000 hours of service, and Larry transitioned to the docent role. As a member of All Saints' Episcopal Church, he enjoyed volunteering at Andre House with other All Saints' parishioners and was active in the Episcopal Habitat for Humanity Coalition. Larry's favorite travels after retirement were a sunrise bicycle ride down Haleakala volcano in Hawaii, a Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and a hike across Hadrian's Wall with friends.
Larry’s passion for enriching the lives of others through art and service was evident throughout his life, and lives on in those who were lucky enough to know and work with him.