Local set designer, Smithsonian archivist remembered

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 10:34 PM

About 100 people from Washington's theater community and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian gathered Saturday to celebrate the life of an award-winning set designer and the museum's photo archivist, even as they wondered what led to his death.

Lou Stancari, 63, was discovered on the tracks at the Farragut North Metro station on Jan. 15. Metro police are still investigating, a Metro spokeswoman said. Friends said they can't believe he would have been on the tracks intentionally.

Friends who gathered for Stancari's memorial service at the museum said the Washington area has lost one of its most talented set designers while the museum lost the person who best knew its collection of 120,000 photos.

Lou Timmons, a stage manager for Signature Theatre in Arlington County, said Stancari was best known for carving intricate and authentic-looking sets out of styrofoam, whether it was a New Orleans house for "A Streetcar Named Desire" or an estate in Sweden for "A Little Night Music." The unusual styrofoam designs provided relatively inexpensive sets for small-budget theater groups, he said.

"All his sets were gorgeous to look at," Timmons said. "To never see his art or creations again - he just leaves a gaping hole in our community."

Working for theaters in the evenings and on weekends, Stancari won a Helen Hayes Award in 1992 for his set design for Signature's "Sweeney Todd." In addition to working with community theater groups, he was a founding artistic associate at Signature and designed more than 25 sets there over 20 years, Timmons said.

At his full-time job at the museum's archives in Suitland, Stancari organized the photo collection and made it available to scholars, the media, educational programs and Native Americans, said Jane Sledge, an associate director at the museum. If someone needed a photo of a Hopi Indian with a particular kind of clay pot and a horse in the background, Sledge said, Stancari knew where to dig.

"I feel such a sense of loss," Sledge said. "But he lived life his way and did what he wanted to do 100 percent. . . . I think one of the hardest things for the staff is that we don't know what happened to him."

Sledge said she and others are still struggling to understand how Stancari ended up on the train tracks. She said colleagues had an uneventful dinner with him the night before at a Capitol Hill restaurant and escorted him to his home nearby between 11 p.m. and midnight. She said friends don't know why Stancari, who often took taxis, was in the Farragut North Metro station.

Sledge said she and other colleagues can't believe he would have jumped onto the tracks because he was in the middle of several projects at work, had ballet tickets for the following week and had mentioned needing to pick up eyeglasses he'd had repaired.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said police are working with the medical examiner's office in the investigation.

Colleagues said Stancari got away with often being gruff and demanding because his sharp wit made him such fun to be around.

Several of those who gathered Saturday greeted each other with a disbelieving "crazy, huh?" As they looked out over the Capitol and a snow-covered Mall, the group alternately wept and laughed over stories of Stancari cursing out a new boss and joking about his "bourgeois" federal government job.

Stancari, who grew up in Minnesota, is survived by his mother Jean Stancari, 94, of Washington, and a sister. Friends are raising money for a photography award in his name at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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