Robert M. Frankel, a lifetime Pittsburgher, patron of the arts and father of State Rep. Dan Frankel, died on Sept. 17. He was 89.
Frankel built his career in the field of insurance, serving as president of The Frankel Company, then as vice chairman of the Hilb, Rogal and Hamilton Company of Pittsburgh. A graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School and the University of Pittsburgh, Frankel developed communication skills that he used to not only succeed in the business world, but to make an impact on the civic landscape of his hometown.
Although not an artist in his own right, Frankel was devoted throughout his life to bolstering the viability of cultural organizations and securing their future.
In the early 1990s, Frankel served as president of the City Theatre and chaired a capital campaign that raised nearly $3 million to move the theater to its current home on the South Side and effectively put it on the map as a player in Pittsburgh’s arts scene.
“Bob was an inspiration to me, and he was such a great leader,” said Marc Masterson, former artistic director of City Theatre. “He taught me and many others what it meant to be involved civically.”
Frankel was a “connector,” Masterson continued. “He could sit down with you at lunch and within 10 minutes ask you questions and then use your responses to connect your interests with the interests of the organizations he was trying to raise money for.”
City Theatre established the Robert M. Frankel Award to honor his leadership and to recognize artists’ and patrons’ commitment to new play creation and support.
In the 1980s, Frankel served as the chairman of the Three Rivers Arts Festival, tapping its potential to bring vibrancy to a city that was feeling the effects of the collapse of the steel industry.
“He saw arts and culture as so important to the vitality of our city,” said his son Dan Frankel. “When he was chairman of the Three Rivers Arts Festival in the early to mid-1980s, he took that which was very much a struggling organization and instead of basically stopping the bleeding of the organization, he had a bigger vision for it. He was able to successfully raise the money to triple its budget, take its operating accounts from a deficit to a surplus and at the same time, expand the Three Rivers Arts Festival from 10 days to three weeks.
“He viewed it not just as a cultural opportunity,” Frankel continued, “but as the steel industry was collapsing and as the city was shrinking and being challenged, as a way to revitalize the downtown and the city.”
Robert Frankel’s love of the arts began in his youth, with the collection of playbills.
Although he tried his hand at acting while a senior at Taylor Allderdice, he was “fired” after being cast in the lead of the class play because he played hooky from rehearsals, Dan Frankel said.
He had the looks but not the talent for theater, according to his son.
“He was an incredibly good-looking guy,” Frankel said. “He had a Cary Grant kind of look and Paul Newman blue eyes.”
His love of theater was enhanced after meeting the love of his life, Rebeca, while she was a theater major at Carnegie Tech, performing in an Ibsen play, Dan Frankel said.
“My father was smitten,” he continued. “They had a remarkable love affair, and that marriage was one of the most defining things in his life. They met, went on a date and had this whirlwind romance and were married less than three months later.”
The marriage cultivated and inspired Frankel’s interest in not just theater, but the arts in general, his son said.
“My mother was a docent at the Carnegie Institute of Art, and my father was on the board of the Carnegie Institute of Art,” he said. “They enjoyed art and culture together throughout their lives, and it also blended in with their Jewish faith, because they cultivated that Jewishly.”
The senior Frankel served as president of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in the 1990s.
“As president, Bob led the NFJC through some of its most productive and creative years, bringing to the organization his sophisticated appreciation for the arts and his deep commitment to contemporary Jewish culture,” recalled Richard Siegel, who, as executive director of the NFJC, worked alongside Frankel.
Frankel devoted himself to Jewish education, serving as president of the Hebrew Institute. He also served on many other boards throughout the city, including UPMC Presbyterian and Montefiore Hospitals, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“He was a very humble guy, but he took great pride in his accomplishments,” Dan Frankel said.
He also took pride in the accomplishments of his children.
“He was very supportive of my efforts,” Frankel said. “I became interested in politics really because it was something we always talked about around the dining room table. Watching Walter Cronkite and the ‘CBS Evening News’ after dinner was always required.”
Robert Frankel was also supportive of his daughter, Janina Frankel-Yoeli, when she decided to make aliyah in the late 1990s.
“He was extremely supportive of that,” Dan Frankel said, “and I know it was difficult for my parents. Janina ended up making a life for herself in Israel, and I know he was very proud of that.”
For the last seven years of his life, Robert Frankel suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
“The last few years were really hard to watch and experience,” Dan Frankel said. “Alzheimer’s has done that to so many people.
“It drains them of their being, and watching that slow process play out over seven years was very painful, especially for my mother, who literally every day went to be by his bedside.”
In addition to his son, Dan Frankel (Debra), and daughter Janina Frankel-Yoeli (Rafi), Robert Frankel is survived by his wife, Rebeca Frankel, sister Marcia Kane, grandchildren Aaron, Erica and Mark and stepgrandchildren Dana and Hagai. He is also survived by nieces and nephews.
Services were held at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Sept. 20, with interment at West View Cemetery of Rodef Shalom Congregation. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at