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Arts & Entertainment

Oliver Sutton, a dapper presence at this storied SF theater, dies

Oliver Sutton, who served as the American Conservatory Theater’s head of security for 25 years until his death, was remembered this week at a large gathering of staff and friends. | Annie Sears

Staff and friends of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) gathered Monday evening at the company’s Toni Rembe Theater—formerly known as the Geary—to remember Oliver Sutton, the longtime head of security whose dapper presence at the doors was as much a part of the theatergoing experience as playbills or the proscenium.

People associated with the theater and its acting school remembered Sutton as a quintessential San Francisco character, an unfailingly well-dressed man given to pocket squares and top hats, and who remembered the names of virtually every A.C.T. subscriber and longtime patron. What they did not remember with any certainty was Sutton’s start date—although in 2019, management threw him a party marking 25 years of service all the same.

Sutton, who was believed to be 71 or 72 years old at the time of his death last month, died of unspecified causes.

(From left) A.C.T. Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein, Head of Security Oliver Sutton and Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon pose outside the Toni Rembe Theater. | Kevin Berne

A Baltimore native who knew his family history from when his ancestors migrated north from Georgia in the late 1800s, Sutton served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and traveled as far as Sri Lanka. A published poet, competitive powerlifter and father of three, he worked with James Brown at the beginning of his career, once met playwright August Wilson for lunch and referred to himself as a “steel fist in a velvet glove.” He was seldom found without a flask in his pocket, readily sharing whiskey with anxious actors.

On Monday, A.C.T. Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein and others shared anecdotes about the long career of a theater lover who may not have seen much theater. He saw himself as a conduit between the drink you have at home while getting ready and the curtain-raising. Once, while Mayor London Breed was present, someone mentioned that the mayor had seen a performance, and Sutton sprang into action, asking, “Really? Willie [Brown] was here?”

As the Toni Rembe Theater is next door to the Curran Theatre, Sutton’s efforts at sidewalk crowd control sometimes included maintaining orderly will-call lines for both houses. Charged with keeping the white-painted curb free of cars during performances, he occasionally allowed older theatergoers with mobility issues to park there (as well as anyone who tipped him). 

Like a European butler heralding the entry of a duchess, he would announce their arrival as “our special guest” in his unmistakable basso profondo voice, signaling to the ushers that this was a valued patron who needed special care and attention.

In late 2021, A.C.T. used Sutton’s return to manning the door as a symbol for the entire company’s post-Covid reopening. In a post cheerily titled “Oliver Is Back!”, he revealed that he’d spent much of the pandemic cooking, writing and hoping to get back to work.

Astrid Kane can be reached at