The grande dame of the Mechanic is far too modest

MICHAEL OLESKER

June 01, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

"Please," says Hope Quackenbush, "don't do another eulogy, OK? I've been eulogized to death already, and it's starting to get embarrassing."

OK, no more eulogies. When Quackenbush announced the other day that she'd be retiring after 18 years as managing director of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, there were verbal bouquets heaped upon her, paeans of praise, as normally cynical journalists scrounged through their thesauri in search of long-forgotten positive verbiage.

And why not? This is the woman who helped bring light to nighttime downtown Baltimore, who helped bring life back to a theater many had kissed off, who . . .

"No eulogies, OK?" she says again.

OK, OK.

But, could we gossip?

For 18 years, Quackenbush has had access to the glitterati of the theater -- Yul Brynner and Liv Ullmann and George C. Scott and Arthur Miller and Anne Bancroft and on and on -- not only booking their shows here but often holding their hands.

So: Can we talk?

"Actors?" she says. "They're very human. They're often shy, vulnerable, introverted people, and acting gives them a chance to be somebody else. You see it when curtain time comes. They all go through these nervous rituals before they go out on stage, every one of them, with these rituals. Well, every one except one. Ed Asner."

Television's Lou Grant, a political activist of the first order, came here for "Born Yesterday."

"He'd have his dressing room full of people right up to curtain time," Quackenbush remembers. "Talking politics, talking causes. And a voice is calling, 'Mr. Asner, it's curtain time. Mr. Asner? Curtain time.' And he'd stroll out there, calm as could be."

Some were explicit in their desires, and charming only so long as the desires were met. Yul Brynner, for example, doing "The King and I." No hotel in Baltimore was grand enough.

So Quackenbush and her husband moved out of their apartment and let Brynner, his wife, and cook, and chauffeur, and dog and luggage that filled an entire room, move in for the run of the show.

"He pulled up," she remembers, "with a trailer truck of his possessions. About two hundred pair of black pants and black turtlenecks, which was all he wore. And everything else that he needed for being on the road constantly.

"In our guest bedroom, he put this huge tanning bed. It blew out the circuits in the building. But, see, it wasn't just vanity. He had to go bare-chested through the whole show, so the tanning bed saved him hours of makeup time."

She talked for hours with Arthur Miller when the great playwright opened his "American Clock" remembrance of the Great Depression. Miller was rewriting it almost daily, as he watched early audience responses.

One day, Quackenbush compared notes with him on Depression memories. She told him of grade-school days, living near a railroad track, and men who came to her house and were fed by her mother.

"He put it in the play," she remembers. "He never said a word to me, but there it was, in the play one night. . . ."

The shows begin to run together a little bit -- about 180 of them over 18 seasons -- and the names begin to blur a little. But some stand out:

Rex Harrison, who came here toward the end of his life in "The Circle": "A terrible moment, when he didn't know where he was. We thought he'd had a stroke, but it was just the medication he'd taken. A charming man."

Anne Bancroft, here in "Golda": "Lots of angst. A very dramatic woman. It was a very difficult piece of theater, and a lot of actors get into a character and never lose it off-stage."

Carol Channing, here for several shows: "Bigger than life. She puts on this Carol Channing persona and treats her as if she's somebody else. She's one of the last of those who will do anything to sell a show. She'll walk your dog at two in the morning if she thinks a TV crew will be out there."

George C. Scott, here for "Sly Fox": "A terrifying person, and he knows it. But a great actor, a great comic actor. My favorite."

Our own favorite theater person? Hope Quackenbush.

"Remember," she says. "No eulogies, OK?"

Reluctantly: OK.

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