Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — Aubrey Hampton, who co-founded the Gorilla Theatre, one of a handful of professional theater companies in the Tampa Bay area, died Monday after a brief illness. He was 76.
Mr. Hampton bankrolled the nonprofit theater, named Gorilla because "living theater, like the gorilla, is an endangered species," with the fortune he made as founder and CEO of Aubrey Organics, which sells natural cosmetics.
Peers consider him a visionary in both fields.
He was committed to producing new plays, especially his own. Though his original work could be called eccentric — for example, he once put on a three-and-a-half-hour comedy about a cowboy ventriloquist — and subject to bad reviews, Mr. Hampton cheerfully rolled with the punches.
In a review for another newspaper, St. Petersburg Times correspondent Marty Clear wrote of one of Mr. Hampton's plays: "I was surprised that this didn't suck."
Mr. Hampton was so pleased, he made T-shirts for the cast emblazoned with the phrase: "Didn't suck."
But no one questions his contributions as a generous benefactor who gave many local artists their start.
"He mostly identified himself as a playwright," said Wendy Leigh, the vice president of education at the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center of the Performing Arts. "And he just happened to be a brilliant scientist (who was) able to create all of this other enterprise, which luckily was able to support his first love, which was theater."
A biochemist, Mr. Hampton struck gold when he created a bath liquid out of ground ginger, peppermint and eucalyptus leaf mixed with coconut oil.
The result: a comfort item to help customers enjoy a soothing bath, and a new company, Aubrey Organics. Under his watch, the company created more than 200 natural-ingredient products that are now being sold in more than 4,500 retail outlets in the world, the company says. The company's items don't contain any products that have been tested on animals.
Mr. Hampton has received industry awards for his work, including a place on PETA's cruelty-free companies list and an activist of the year award by the Culture and Animals Foundation.
"He's one of the founders of the natural products industry," said Aubrey Organics general manager Curt Velva.
Theater friends describe an easygoing man with long silver hair and a full beard, who spoke with a soft Midwestern burr and had a hearty and somewhat raspy laugh.
"He loved the artistic experience of going out after with the actors, to Bella's (restaurant)," said Jessica Alexander, an actor and founding member of the Revolve Theatre Company, who credits Mr. Hampton with helping her career. "He'd just sit there with a glass of wine and that little sparkle in his eyes."
Mr. Hampton launched the Gorilla Theatre in 1990 with his wife, Susan Hussey, a talented playwright who had edited his magazine, Organica: A Magazine of Arts and Activism. Gorilla debuted in The Loft, a Tampa theater, with a production of his wife's play Plutography in the Slave Trade.
The company eventually relocated to Drew Park, where Mr. Hampton produced works by playwrights including George Bernard Shaw, Alan Bennett and Wallace Shawn, often with out-of-town actors in leading roles.
"Some of the finest theater work I've seen in the area was seen at Gorilla," said Times performing arts critic John Fleming.
Mr. Hampton paid everybody, not just stars, said Bridget Bean, Gorilla's managing director. "Actors, backstage people — even our bartenders got paid," she said.
Aubrey Hampton grew up in New Albany, Ind., the son of a union organizer of foundry workers. He earned a doctorate in biochemistry at New York University, the theater said. He also taught himself magic and puppeteering.
Among his proudest accomplishments was the Young Dramatists' Project, started in the late 1990s, in which selected area teens can see their plays professionally produced.
Actor Meg Heimstead, education director at American Stage, said she got her first professional job in the Tampa Bay area nine years ago at Gorilla Theatre. She has since played roles at the Jobsite Theater, American Stage and other theaters.
"He was one of those people you've just never met before," Heimstead said of Mr. Hampton. "He was an experience walking into the room — a great, wonderful experience."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.