“Chris was a dynamic, crazy Greek.” said Michael Parver, who helped him found the Alliance Theater. “What drove Chris is the absolute love of theater. He lived it, he dreamed it, he ate it.”
An abiding fascination with musicals took the Ohio native to Broadway, followed by a 1960 move to Atlanta — the home of his wife Glenn’s family.
The summer stock Chastain-based Theater Under the Stars was then the only major local theater company. It wobbled financially each year, and Atlanta businessman and president of the company Maurice “Bromo” Seltzer would write a check to cover the deficit.
Manos saw an opportunity.
In a 2013 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, Manos recounted meeting up with Seltzer and bluntly telling him “It’s stupid the way you’re running this, and you should hire me.”
Seltzer responded that the company was losing enough money already.
Undaunted, Manos offered to work for free for six months.
He set to work bringing in stars of the day like Robert Goulet, Mitzi Gaynor and Paul Lynde. Ticket sales rose and the non-profit organization landed and stayed in the black. Manos stayed, as well.
While such warhorse musicals as “Oklahoma” “The Sound of Music” and more recently “Annie” and “Cats” dominated TOTS annual offerings, he wasn’t averse to a gamble.
The AJC reported that when nobody else brought Stephen Sondheim plays to town, he did, though they lost money. He made unusual casting decisions, such as having controversial TV talker Jerry Springer star in “Chicago.” TOTS was the first to produce a professional stage version of Disney’s “High School Musical,” which later toured nationally.
Ensuing years saw moves to the Atlanta Civic Center (1967) the Fox Theater (1988), a rebranding as Theater of the Stars and a switch to an unusual mix of locally produced plays and touring Broadway productions such as “Spamalot.”
Not only did he import nationally known heavyweights, colleagues said, he went out of his way to include Atlantans.
Manos cast American Idol runner-up Diana DeGarmo in “Annie,” and she went on to star on Broadway.
Another was Markelle Gay, who at the tender age of 10 auditioned to be in the ensemble for “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I had never done any kind of acting before,” Gay recalled.
After a performance, Chris and his son called him into the office. Convinced he’d failed, Gay was instead offered a significant role. A film and TV career sprang from that, “changing my life.”
Colleagues said Manos could be tough and exacting as he worked to stitch all facets of a production together. While those he thought were slacking could feel his ire, he’d also take aside cast and crew members who might be struggling for a talk and encouragement.
“He loved actors and musicians and wanted the best for them,” said Karen Hatchett, who once handled marketing and public relations for the company.
Manos also helped found or professionalize the Alliance, the Atlanta Ballet, The Atlanta Opera and the Just Us Theater (now defunct), among others.
Just Us was the city’s first African American theater company. Manos provided startup funding and administrative space, recalled Camille Russell Love, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
He also loaned a staffer to help her navigate the mechanics of putting on her first concert supporting the Atlanta Jazz Festival.
“Chris was a very generous soul,” she said. “If it was within his power, he’d do anything for you.”
That generosity of spirit, pride of accomplishment and undying fascination with theater shined through each time he gave a curtain speech, said colleagues.
“Thanks for coming,” he’d conclude. “Know that we care about you, and see you next time.”