Shirley Romaine, champion of the arts and for peace, dies at 96

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Shirley Romaine, a champion of the arts and progressive causes, died on Sunday. She was 96. (Photo from Blank Slate Media Archive)
Shirley Romaine, a champion of the arts and progressive causes, died on Sunday. She was 96. (Photo from Blank Slate Media Archive)

Shirley Romaine, a television personality, champion of the arts, and crusader for progressive causes and peace, died on Sunday morning. She was 96.

Romaine, a 50-year resident of Great Neck, played many roles in her life, with actress, show host, teacher, activist, mother and wife being among them.

But, family, friends and colleagues said, one thing proved consistent throughout Romaine’s life: she was a presence brimming with kindness, passion, conviction and an unparalleled eloquence.

“She was involved in her family, she was involved in the arts, she was involved in politics, and they all mattered deeply and they all managed to be intertwined,” Rabbi Robert Widom of Temple Emanuel said at her funeral service on Tuesday. “They fed on each other in a very full life.”

Romaine was born on Feb. 18, 1923, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, according to an online obituary. Her family then went to Los Angeles, where her parents opened a dry cleaner and she attended Los Angeles City College to secure an associate’s degree. After that, Romaine moved to New York to pursue an acting career.

Romaine took on several roles, Widom said, working on and off Broadway, touring with Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt, being part of the “original touring company of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’” and becoming a regular on soap operas.

She also battled being on the “Hollywood blacklist” during the Red Scare in the 1950s, Widom said.

During that time she met Stan Romaine, a trade magazine publisher. The two married on Oct. 20, 1957, and had two daughters: Jenny and Erica.

The family moved to Great Neck in the late 1960s, where Romaine took an active role in the civil rights and women’s movements on the North Shore. She also helped create a committee during the Vietnam War called the Co-op for Peace.

When Regina Gil, the founder and executive director of the Gold Coast Arts Center, moved to Great Neck in 1976, Gil said, Romaine was already a “prominent citizen of the community” and leader in the arts.

Romaine was the president of the North Shore Community Arts Center, a school of the arts and a performance center, until 1983. After that Romaine and Harriet Becker headed the North Shore Community Arts Council, Gil said, serving as a support group for the arts into the 1990s.

“Shirley was front and center always,” Gil said, “bringing the best of what was happening in the world­ – the world of culture, the world of education – to her community, carrying on the cultural legacy that had given Great Neck such stature, such a unique position among suburban communities.”

When Gil thought of founding a new arts center, she first went to Romaine, who warned her about all the obstacles. But once convinced, Gil said, Romaine became a strong supporter and one of the first signatories of the Great Neck Arts Center – now known as the Gold Coast Arts Center.

Romaine also hosted the “Playwrights Project” for Public Access Television, served as co-chair of the Cinema Arts Center, and hosted and produced Cablevision’s “Artscene on Long Island” for 25 years.

Beth Jucovy, the artistic director and founder of Great Neck-based Dance Visions NY Inc., said Romaine was also pivotal to the success of the group, having served as a founding board member and a “mother figure” to everyone involved in the group.

“She has been its lifeblood along with myself for over twenty two years and continued to be active, and instrumental in the company until her passing,” Jucovy said via email. “She started us off on our successes and has been host/narrator, elucidator, poet, even dancer in almost all our programs locally, in NYC, and in other nearby states and counties for the past two decades.”

Fran Reid, who co-founded Reach Out America, a progressive group advocating for human rights, the environment, the social safety net, voting rights and world peace, with Romaine, recalled first meeting her and other prominent liberal activists during the Bush-Kerry presidential contest.

“Shirley was a legend,” Reid said. “I knew it before I met her and it was confirmed to me the moment I met her.”

Reid said Romaine educated her on how to succeed in activism, whether it was dealing with the press, issues of the day, proper pronunciation of words and, most importantly, “peace and her passion for it.”

“We marched for everything: for peace, for health care, for women’s right, on tax day – I know all of you remember the marches in front of the post office, the environment, when Bush came to the Merchant Marine Academy,” Reid said.

“Shirley was the elegant, cultured, soft-spoken activist with a passion for peace,” Reid  said.

In addition, Romaine was on the board of directors of the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives and was involved in Great Neck SANE/Peace Action.

But while Romaine was involved in many causes, she was also dedicated to her family. This could take the forms, including Romaine finding time to teach her daughter Erica’s fifth-grade class Shakespeare, as Widom noted.

Romaine is survived by her husband, Stanley, daughters Erica and Jenny, and several cousins.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Fran Reid, a co-founder of Reach Out America, as Fran Rein.

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