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Where the magic started: Tony Award-winning producer Richard Winkler shares his Interlochen story and why he’s giving back

Winkler’s career led him from Arts Camp to working with renowned lighting designer Tharon Musser. Now, the Richard Winkler Endowed Scholarship in Theatre continues his legacy.

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Richard Winkler (IAC 58-63, 65) is a seven-time Tony Award-winner and a five-time Olivier Award-winner. 

Richard Winkler can remember the exact instant he decided to pursue a career in the theatre.

Winkler was a student in middle school, and his parents had taken him to see a production of My Fair Lady. During the musical’s opening number, a chorus girl dressed in a red velvet gown stepped into a pool of blue light. Winkler was struck by the startling beauty of the moment.

“Somehow, that image is still burned in the back of my head. I'm sure that’s part of the reason that I became a lighting designer …  I just remember seeing this and going, ‘Wow, I want to be part of making this magic.’”

Winkler (IAC 58-63, 65) went on to achieve his goals, becoming a seven-time Tony Award-winning and five-time Olivier Award-winning Broadway and West End producer. He’s led a successful 35-year career as a lighting designer for theatre, opera, ballet, and spectacle. He’s also produced shows on Broadway and London’s West End.

His journey was fueled by seven transformative summers at Interlochen Arts Camp. Now, Winkler plans to give back to the next generation through an endowed scholarship in his estate.

From Interlochen to working for renowned lighting designer Tharon Musser

When Winkler was just a young boy, his parents made sure their son was exposed to the arts. They found out about Interlochen through his aunt Deborah, whose three children had all attended Camp. The Winklers decided it was the perfect place to send their son. Winkler was challenged by his experience at Camp, but he loved it and came back again and again.

“Interlochen’s competitiveness helped make me the tenacious guy that I am,” says Winkler.

Winkler has fond memories of his summers at Camp: “Root beer floats at the Melody Freeze, listening to the rain on the leaves outside the cabins—a beautiful sound.”

After Interlochen, Winkler attended the University of Michigan, graduating in 1970 with a degree in English. A month after graduation, he moved to the East Coast to become the lighting designer for Cape Cod Melody Tent. The tenacity he’d learned at Interlochen would be required sooner than he’d expected.

“At the end of the summer, the production manager said to me, ‘You need to find another career, pal, because you're never going to be successful in the theatre,’” Winkler remembers. “Kind of sounds like a challenge, doesn't it? He was challenging me to become successful.”

Winkler used the production manager’s words as fuel for his ambitions. He spent two years at the Lester Polakov Studio and Forum of Stage Design, and then started sending out letters to lighting designers on Broadway until he was hired. His dream, though, was to work for renowned lighting designer Tharon Musser.  

Winkler vividly remembers one Sunday morning when he was flipping through the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section, reading the announcement for Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music.

“My telephone rang. I ran into my apartment and the voice at the other end of the phone said ‘This is a person-to-person call for Richard Winkler.’  I said ‘Speaking’ and the voice at the other end said, ‘Hi, this is Tharon Musser.’ I thought it was a friend of mine playing a joke.”

He said, 'What do you need?' I said, 'Lunch and $100.’ So they fed me lunch and gave me 100 bucks, and I got in a taxi and went to Boston.

Richard Winkler

But it was real. Musser was in Boston working on A Little Night Music, and her assistant had gotten sick. She wanted Winkler to come out as soon as possible. Winkler realized he had only $20 in his pocket, so he gave his father a call.

“He said, ‘What do you need?’ I said, ‘Lunch and $100.’ So they fed me lunch and gave me 100 bucks, and I got in a taxi and went to Boston.”  

Musser liked Winkler’s work so much that she asked him to stay. He was her assistant for the next three years, rounding out his stint with A Chorus Line. After that, Winkler established a thriving career designing on his own.

A commitment to the next generation

Over his years in the theatre, Winkler has frequently run into Interlochen alumni. His recent work on 42d Street brought him into contact with Kate Baldwin (IAC 91-92).

“It's a bond that is really unbreakable. It's an instant connection,” says Winkler.

Even after more than 50 years, Winkler maintains a connection to the institution, bolstered by his generous support.

“Interlochen is part of the fiber of my being. What I was given at Interlochen has helped make me who I am today,” he explains.

In his estate plan, Winkler has provided for the Richard Winkler Endowed Scholarship in Theatre to help more students launch and nurture their artistic passion at Interlochen. His scholarship provides for exceptionally talented students enrolled in Interlochen Arts Camp’s Musical Theatre, Acting, or Repertory Theatre Production programs, or for Interlochen Arts Academy students enrolled in Theatre Performance. 

Interlochen is part of the fiber of my being. What I was given at Interlochen has helped make me who I am today.

Richard Winkler

“My investment in Interlochen is about the future of the arts and self-determination for these young artists, to help them see how many different places they can go,” says Winkler.

After seven summers at Camp, Winkler embarked on a fulfilling career that took him to places he’d only dreamed of going. Thanks to his philanthropic legacy, generations of theatre students can launch their own journeys in the arts.

For information about including Interlochen in your estate plans or establishing an endowed scholarship, please contact Kathleen Kasdorf at or (231) 276-7637.