Zelda Fichandler poses for a portrait inside the Arena Stage in 1990. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post)

Zelda Fichandler, who co-founded Washington’s Arena Stage in a defunct burlesque house, guided the troupe to prestige rarely achieved outside Broadway and became a matriarch of the regional-theater movement, died July 29 at her home in the District. She was 91.

The cause was complications from congestive heart failure, said her son Mark Fichandler.

Broadway remains the glamorous center of American theater production. But in the years after World War II, Mrs. Fichandler was in the vanguard of a quixotic effort to create serious-minded repertory hubs in other major American cities.

Arena Stage — started on a shoestring in 1950 and the first racially integrated theater in Washington — became one of the most influential regional theaters, which now number in the hundreds. Founded as a for-profit venture, Arena evolved under Mrs. Fichandler’s leadership into a nonprofit operation, demonstrating the promise and possibility of a model that has immeasurably extended the reach of theater across the country.

Architect Harry Weese with Arena Stage co-founder Zelda Fichandler and the model for the original Arena Stage. (Courtesy of Arena Stage)

From the start, Mrs. Fichandler wanted to train promising actors and directors, provide a venue for emerging playwrights and, above all, to reverse what she called, with characteristic dramatic flourish, “the contraction and imminent death of the art of the theater.”

Arena presented classic plays by Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw while also embracing contemporary works by Arthur Miller, Jean Anouilh and Samuel Beckett. It gave second chances to plays that flopped commercially on Broadway — and first chances to little-known actors who went on to fame. Mrs. Fichandler also advocated multiracial casting long before it was common in mainstream theaters.

Arena’s breakthrough production was Howard Sackler’s 1967 boxing and interracial love drama “The Great White Hope,” starring then-unknown actors James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. The play was the first original show to premiere at a regional theater and then transfer to Broadway, where it won several Tony Awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama and was turned into an admired film.

“The Great White Hope,” which Mrs. Fichandler spent a year shaping with the writer, showed many that highly successful commercial enterprises could emerge from regional repertory theaters.

Under Mrs. Fichandler’s watch, Arena continued to shepherd plays to Broadway over the decades while providing a strong training ground for actors and directors who achieved notable careers in film and onstage. They included the director Alan Schneider and performers such as Pernell Roberts, George Grizzard, Frances Sternhagen, Ned Beatty and Robert Prosky.

In 1973, Arena Stage became the first regional theater selected by the State Department to present U.S. plays in the Soviet Union. Three years later, Arena Stage became the first troupe outside New York to receive a Tony Award for general excellence.

Zelda Fichandler in front of the Arena Stage’s first home, the converted Hippodrome movie theater, the week before its opening on Aug. 16, 1950. (Courtesy of Arena Stage)

In his book “Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage,” Joseph Wesley Zeigler wrote that the effort to start Arena was nothing short of herculean and that Mrs. Fichandler was a seminal early force in the regional-theater movement.

He wrote that it required remarkable vision in the 1950s to think one could survive, much less thrive, running a theater in Washington that mounted original productions, operated with the likelihood of financial losses and served a community with many transient government employees — and in a region within relative proximity to New York’s theater district.

Zeigler wrote that Arena Stage’s example led to the founding of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and the Charles Playhouse in Boston, among others.

Locally, Arena’s impact was extraordinary. Its success was credited with greatly expanding the theatrical offerings in the nation’s capital, which had long been viewed as a backwater for stage productions. Without Arena, there might not have been such organizations as New Playwrights’ Theatre for newer works, the old Washington Theater Club for off-Broadway fare, Horizons Theatre for feminist plays and Woolly Mammoth for avant-garde tastes.

“If ever there was a godmother of Washington theater — one who bred it, nurtured it and elevated it — it was Zelda Fichandler,” said Linda Levy, former president and chief executive of Theatre Washington, a nonprofit industry advocacy group. “Zelda infused the theater profession, and the Washington region, with unparalleled commitment and artistry.”

Showbiz on a shoestring

Mrs. Fichandler described Arena, and regional theater in general, as a bulwark against Broadway’s unforgiving production-line mentality.

“What was essentially a collective and cumulative art form was represented in the United States by the hit-or-miss, make-a-pudding, smash-a-pudding system of Broadway production,” she once said.

“What required by its nature continuity and groupness, not to mention a certain quietude of spirit and the fifth freedom — the freedom to fail — was taking place in an atmosphere of hysteria, crisis, fragmentation, one-shotedness and mammon-mindedness within the 10 blocks of Broadway.”

Mrs. Fichandler grew up in Washington attracted to progressive politics in the 1930s and 1940s. In theater, she told The Washington Post, she found a medium that satisfied “my political conscience, my interest in literature, my dramatic sense, my curiosity about people.”

Mrs. Fichandler helped will Arena Stage into being. A Cornell University graduate with a degree in Russian language and literature, she enrolled in a master of fine arts program at George Washington University in the late 1940s and confronted a drama teacher who bemoaned the lack of professional theater outside New York.

“So I said, ‘Why don’t we do something about that?’ Whimsically sealing my fate for the next 40 years,” she told the New York Times.

The idea of a company of professionals hundreds or thousands of miles from Broadway uniting to start a serious theatrical venture was largely alien before the 1940s. Nina Vance in Houston and Margo Jones in Dallas had paved the way for Mrs. Fichandler, who sought Jones’s advice before moving forward with plans for Arena Stage.

With her husband, Thomas Fichandler, and director Edward Mangum, Mrs. Fichandler cobbled together enough money to buy the old Hippodrome Theater on Ninth Street NW. They scraped wads of chewing gum off the theater’s 247 seats and opened on Aug. 16, 1950, with a production of Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th-century comedy “She Stoops to Conquer” directed by Mangum and featuring Grizzard.

At the time, the city’s one professional theater, the National, was temporarily shuttered because of its refusal to desegregate. The Arena welcomed members of all races, and audiences flocked. The top ticket price was $1.90 ($1.50 for matinees).

Arena’s early years were a cavalcade of hard work, good fortune and scrambling. The theater was too small to have a backstage, so actors often needed to run through an alley behind it to enter from the opposite side of the stage. Mrs. Fichandler often ran alongside, holding an umbrella over them to shield them from rain or snow. She sometimes sewed costumes for the third act while the first act was underway.

In 1951, Mangum left the area for other directing jobs, and Mrs. Fichandler assumed the title of artistic director. Within a few years, Thomas Fichandler quit his job as a government economist to become Arena’s full-time executive director.

Arena began to play to sold-out audiences and, in 1961, opened at its present location in Southwest Washington. The structure, with an 800-seat theater-in-the-round, was designed by Harry Weese, a Chicago architect who later won the contract to design Washington’s Metrorail system. (Weese also designed the Arena’s adjoining Kreeger Theater, which opened in 1970.)

Mrs. Fichandler remained involved in programming, finding cabaret-style and experimental theater pieces for smaller spaces within the Arena Stage building.

Arena gained its greatest renown with the production of “The Great White Hope.” At a time of tumultuous race relations, the play was an enormous risk given its provocative dialogue and interracial bedroom scene.

Based on the life of the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, the play also was an economic challenge because of its epic length (20 scenes, running 3 1/2  hours) and a cast of 63 playing nearly 250 roles.

Director Edwin Sherin once told The Post that Mrs. Fichandler spent a year working with Sackler to give shape to what could have been an unwieldy six-hour production. She won a $25,000 grant to fund the show. Arena lost twice that amount in mounting the gargantuan production but gained a public-relations victory for regional theater, drawing enthusiastic reviews and stories about what the Arena had achieved.

Even with the acclaim for the initial production, the play resulted in a stinging loss for Arena and Mrs. Fichandler when the director and much of the cast left for more fertile grounds on Broadway and in Hollywood.

To her regret, Mrs. Fichandler had not made arrangements for Arena to earn a share of the Broadway and film profits; the show had been sold to the movies for about $1 million. A bitter dispute broke out between Mrs. Fichandler and veteran Broadway producer Herman Levin, who bought the Broadway rights for “The Great White Hope” from Sackler.

She rejected a $50,000 offer as an insult, according to Zeigler’s book about regional theater, but she quickly became savvy in the ways of compensation and had a profound effect on how other regional theaters handled Broadway and Hollywood interest in work that originated from their stages.

Mrs. Fichandler continued sending plays to Broadway, among them Arthur L. Kopit’s “Indians,” Michael Weller’s “Moonchildren,” Christopher Durang’s “A History of the American Film” and Patrick Meyers’s “K2.”

‘I was the maverick’

Zelda Diamond was born in Boston on Sept. 18, 1924, and raised in the District. Her father, Harry, was a government scientist who supervised development of the proximity fuse for ordnance during World War II. Her mother, the former Ida Epstein, was a Lithuanian immigrant and a homemaker.

Mrs. Fichandler later told The Post that her home life was not warm. “In this middle-class Jewish family, I was the maverick. I wasn’t docile. I never fit in,” she said. Attending drama school as a child, she said, brought her self-confidence and “a point of entry into the world.”

She graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School at 16 and then went to Cornell University. After graduating from college in 1945, she returned to Washington and the next year married Thomas Fichandler.

The Fichandlers separated in 1975 but continued to work together. He died in 1997. Survivors include two sons, Hal Fichandler of Philadelphia and Mark Fichandler of Manhattan; a sister, Joyce Simons of Washington; and two grandchildren.

Mrs. Fichandler was immersed in theater education as a lecturer and panelist. Starting in 1984, she spent more than two decades chairing the graduate acting program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded Mrs. Fichandler the National Medal of Arts. In 1999, she was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in New York.

After Mrs. Fichandler retired from Arena Stage in 1990, the theater she co-founded continued to call on her services periodically. The last show she directed there was a 2006 production of Clifford Odets’ Depression-era drama “Awake and Sing!”

She otherwise tried to limit her involvement in running Arena Stage. “It’s not my watch anymore,” she told The Post. “I don’t want to be the aunt living in the attic.”