Hope Quackenbush brightened the theater lights of Baltimore

JACQUES KELLY

May 19, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

The fine hand of Hope Quackenbush had clearly been at wor when audiences applauded a performance of "The Will Rogers Follies," one of the hundreds of plays and other attractions she brought to Baltimore in her 17 highly successful seasons as managing director of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

In that time, Quackenbush accomplished what some thought impossible. She sold Broadway road shows to skeptical Baltimoreans. She lured people downtown who otherwise might have stayed home in Pikesville or Dundalk. She made the lights dazzle. She brought us laughter, music and tears. And a few bombs, too.

This week, Quackenbush announced that she would be retiring from the post she's held since 1976.

"The time has come. Let the younger people do what I did," she BTC said last night from a New York hotel room.

Quackenbush's official title is managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, a job that means she books the plays and musical comedies that come to this city.

People today take it for granted that the Mechanic or the Lyric Theater will have shows throughout the fall, winter and spring. But it was not so in the mid-1970s when Quackenbush was hired to get local commercial theater back on its feet. The Mechanic, which opened to high hopes in 1967, went dark at that time. There was a fear that it might become nothing more than a movie house.

There was no reason to believe that Quackenbush had the qualifications to bring the Mechanic back to life. Her chief credential was her role in helping found the Baltimore City Fair in 1970. But this was a time when the administration of Mayor William Donald Schaefer said anything was possible. Quackenbush, then-Housing Commissioner Robert C. Embry Jr., now chief of the Abell Foundation, and Sandra Hillman, another City Fair founder who is today an ad agency official, worked their magic.

"Sandy Hillman called me Feb. 14, 1976. I never forget that date," Quackenbush said.

"We had to make people have faith again in Baltimore, about coming downtown. I never promised my audiences a thing I couldn't deliver. Occasionally, a play would close up before we could get it, but we tried to make good. Theater-going is a civilized part of life," she said.

For the first few years, Quackenbush worked with New York theater producer Alex Cohen. He had the connections -- for which the city paid handsomely -- and Quackenbush had the sense of people.

One afternoon, Cohen filled a Metroliner rail car with some of the biggest stars on Broadway. He brought the late producer Joseph Papp, comedian Jerry Lewis and singer-dancer Donna McKechnie to the Omni Hotel's ballroom for a huge luncheon.

Quackenbush was a quick study. Before long, all the high-priced New York booking talent was a thing of the past and she was solidly in control, searching out the plays and musicals that she believed Baltimore would buy. She established a large season subscription list. Many of the original ticket subscribers are still coming back.

"Baltimore was never thought of as a very good town to play. We offered the producers what we had -- a good working atmosphere, a quality stage crew, good musicians and a good, small office staff. They bought it and wound up loving to play Baltimore," she said.

Quackenbush relied upon her own critical taste when booking shows, but she also used her husband, Bruce, a retired Control Data official, as a sounding board.

"If Bruce liked a play in London or New York, I knew it would play well in Baltimore," she said.

Quackenbush, who is not a native Baltimorean, took to this city with the zeal of a convert. She owns a magnificent apartment overlooking the Washington Monument on Mount Vernon Place and has a weekend getaway in Monkton.

In her years at the Mechanic and Lyric, Quackenbush said, she put the interests of her subscribers first.

"It wasn't easy booking the shows," she recalled. "There was competition. Plays would back out. But we had one of the most loyal subscriber bases in the country. And that's a testament to Baltimore.

"I love to get letters from the people who buy seats at the theater," she said. "I get 'Dear Hope' mail all the time. They tell me everything. They tell me if the theater is too hot or too cold. They tell me about the drinking water."

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