Hope Quackenbush, guiding light of Mechanic, bows out

May 18, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Hope Quackenbush, who almost single-handedly turned the struggling Morris A. Mechanic Theatre into one of the country's most popular theatrical touring venues, has announced her retirement. Her 15-year tenure as managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts ends July 1.

Her duties will be assumed by Steven E. Goldstein, the BCPA's current general manager.

Speaking from her office yesterday, Mrs. Quackenbush, who will remain on the board of directors, admitted, "I don't want to quit. I love what I'm doing, but, you know, the energy level decreases."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer summed up Mrs. Quackenbush's role, saying, "She has done a superior job, and without her efforts there would not have been theater in the city of Baltimore. Hope and her talents will be missed, and she will be difficult to replace because she truly understands the theater."

Sandra S. Hillman, president of the BCPA board, added, "The theater and Hope really are one. You can't separate the two. She's created something quite extraordinary in a city where nobody in this business thought they could do business."

The first executive director of the Baltimore City Fair and one of its founders, Mrs. Quackenbush began her tenure at the BCPA as promotion director in 1976 and was named managing director two years later.

Under her leadership, the BCPA built a subscription base that has consistently exceeded 20,000 in recent seasons -- a national record for a theater presenting four-week engagements. Gross sales have grown from $557,639 for the initial 20-week 1976-1977 season to more than $9 million for the current season, which includes 35 weeks of shows. Also, the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, the music venue built in 1980 under BCPA auspices, brings in another $1 million with 18 weeks of concerts.

In addition, the BCPA was host to more than two dozen Broadway tryouts, investing in three ("To Grandmother's House We Go," "Macbeth" and last season's "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," all of which turned a profit); it sponsored two international theater festivals, in 1981 and 1986; it guarantied the first two years of the residency of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre; it created Telecharge, the telephone ticket sales operation; and it was host to the 1989 convention of the League of American Theatres and Producers, the first time the organization had left the New York area.

Mechanic's rescue in '76

Mrs. Quackenbush's 1976 hiring was part of the city's efforts to put the Mechanic back on its feet after two failed attempts by private managements.

The city's role was novel at the time. It created the BCPA, the nonprofit corporation that operates the theater and, more recently, Pier Six. After an initial outlay of $740,000, the city's financial commitment has been minimal. The theater is a line item in Baltimore's budget: It received $150,000 for the season just ending.

Under Mrs. Quackenbush, this marriage of civic administration and a commercial road house became a model for such cities as Toronto, Pittsburgh and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It began a flood of cities' involvement in the performing arts," she said. "I have a list of them a mile long."

But it is what the theater has done for Baltimore that Mrs. Quackenbush regards as her foremost accomplishment.

"The thing I'm most proud of has been our expansion of the whole theatergoing audience in Baltimore. . . . It affects everybody who does theater. It affects Center Stage. It affects the Theatre Project. It affects Fells Point Corner Theatre. It affects the Vagabonds," she said. "I think we were a great entry and secure kind of theater for people."

And she added, "That says nothing about the economic impact we've made, which is not insignificant. We provide a lot of employment for a lot of Baltimore people -- restaurants, hotels, taxi drivers. The impact of that many people coming out every night and the size of the companies that stay here for four weeks is significant."

'What to do without Hope?'

Mrs. Quackenbush's influence on Baltimore audiences was also cited yesterday by T. Edward Hambleton, one of the founding fathers of off-Broadway who served as a consultant in the early days of the BCPA. "I think that she's done an incredible job in building up the audience here," Mr. Hambleton said. "She has been a wise and able leader of the Mechanic."

At Center Stage, Peter W. Culman, managing director, expressed surprise at the news of her retirement.

"What is Baltimore going to do without Hope Quackenbush, or more importantly, what is the commercial theater of the United States going to do without Hope Quackenbush? . . . She's a legend across the country," he said.

"Goodness, how are they ever going to find someone who understands the combination of Baltimore and the audience at the Mechanic and the baroque interplay of that audience and what's on the road?"

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