A lifelong devotee of theater, film and ballet, Malvernite Charles Messinger shared that passion with hundreds of students during nearly three decades as Malverne High School’s musical director. From makeup and wardrobes to stage lighting and script readings, Messinger held his musicals to the highest standards.
“He made sure that everything we did was first class,” said Joe Nappi, who worked alongside Messinger at Malverne High from 1976 to 1984. “He was stern, but he knew how to have fun. The kids just absolutely adored him.”
Messinger, who was known as Chick, died on Dec. 20 in Doylestown, Pa. He was 91.
Born and raised in the Bronx with a wide range of extended family nearby, he was encouraged by his parents, Frank and Helen Messinger, to take up music and fine arts at an early age. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the late 1940s, and went on to earn an undergraduate degree from New York University. After college, he briefly served in the U.S. Army in Germany, and then returned to New York, where he earned a master’s from Columbia University.
Messinger started his career as an English and drama teacher at Malverne High in the 1950s, and directed the school’s musicals from 1957 to 1984. Many of his students praised him for nurturing their appreciation of the English language and both American and English literature — including the actor Tony Danza, who graduated from Malverne High in 1969. Messinger was also recognized for his stimulating teaching, his ability to reach a wide range of students and his willingness to give Black students leading roles in the musicals.
“This is part of the reason as to why he was so impactful in my life and the lives of others,” said Cameron Murray, who is Black and starred as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1977. “It was during a turbulent time, and there was a little pushback from the community about an African-American playing Tevye.”
The Malverne School District had received a desegregation order from the New York State Education Department in 1966, but racial tensions remained high during the 1970s. Murray, then a 15-year-old sophomore at the high school, said Messinger never second-guessed having him play Tevye, a Jewish milkman from Russia. Instead, Murray recalled, Messinger took him to meet his Jewish family to help him prepare for the role. In addition, Messinger took Murray and the high school cast to see “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway, where they met its legendary star, Zero Mostel.
“At that time in my life, I really didn’t have a lot of association with people from different cultures,” Murray said. “He helped to make me feel comfortable around other people. He had a real way of showing a human side . . . just a cool vibe where he was accepting and tolerant.”
Four years earlier, Malverne High junior Kelly Covington had become the first Black student to earn a lead role in a musical when she starred as Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun.” “He was so knowledgeable and talented and generous with his gifts,” Covington said of Messinger. “He got things out of kids that no one else could do on an emotional and physical level.”
Many of Messinger’s former students also remembered him for his generosity. Troy Williams, who graduated from Malverne High in 1981, said that Messinger paid his prom night expenses, along with his college applications.
“I got to pursue my dreams because this man had faith in me,” said Williams, who tap-danced in Messinger’s musicals. “He gave without seeking anything in return.”
Williams also noted that Messinger was known for making playwrights such as Shakespeare appealing to all of his students. “He was taking guys like me, who were on the border of being a thug, and letting them know that it was OK to read Shakespeare,” Williams said. “His enthusiasm for literature and theater just brought everything to life.”
After retiring to New Hope, Pa., in the 1990s, Messinger invited many of his former students to visit him, and shared humorous stories about theater, the Army, and life with them. He continued following the arts, and reviewed films for local publications.
Messinger was predeceased by his brother, Zane, and is survived by his nieces and nephews, Merrill and Barry Lipter, Andy Messinger and Karen Sokoloff; cousins Peter and Ellen Reiss, Pamela Reiss and Steven Stave; and several grandnieces and grandnephews.
A memorial service will be held this spring at the Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Newtown, Pa., under the direction of the Garefino Funeral Home in Lambertville, N.J.