I almost canceled a Mechanic Theater season

R. H. Gardner

June 21, 1993|By R. H. Gardner

THE NEWS that Hope Quackenbush was retiring a managing director of the Mechanic Theater carried me back to a day in March 1978, when Alexander Cohen, who preceded her in that job, announced his resignation.

Mr. Cohen was a flamboyant character. He thought success was a matter of promotion. During his initial meeting with the city authorities responsible for hiring him, he declared that Broadway needed Baltimore as much as Baltimore needed Broadway.

It was a catchy statement, and the crowd that heard it was visibly impressed.

But some wondered why after more than 25 years of ignoring Baltimore, Broadway had suddenly become so interested in us. Why, during all those years, had the Broadway producers consistently passed up Baltimore for Washington as a place to present their shows?

The answer was simple: A city's value to a producer then lay in the number of subscribers its theater could muster. Washington had many more than Baltimore.

Mr. Cohen used various means to change this situation, and he spent a lot of the city's money doing it.

He brought celebrities down from New York and threw expensive parties for them. He offered Broadway producers special inducements to come here, such as bearing the cost of their advertising. Added up at the end of the year, his expenditures amounted to a $711,000 deficit, $511,000 more than the city had allotted for him.

Appalled at his extravagance, the city cut his budget for the second season to $300,000. The season suffered noticeably as a result. And when he found out that he was to be cut another $50,000 for the next season, he resigned.

The day following his resignation, there appeared in The Sun a picture of the Mechanic's marquee, where coming attractions were usually posted. It contained the announcement: "Coming Next Season -- The Return Of Alexander The Great." Across it had been plastered in large letters the word "CANCELED."

Soon after the paper hit the street, I received a call from Hope Quackenbush, who spoke in a shaken, funereal tone.

"Have you seen the morning paper?"

I had.

"Isn't that the most horrible thing you ever saw?"

I told her I thought it was understandable under the circumstances. After all, Mr. Cohen had not particularly distinguished himself in his second year here.

"But the picture makes it look like the whole season has been canceled and that possibly the theater itself is closing. We're on the verge of launching next season's subscription drive, and I can't believe anybody will want to subscribe under such circumstances."

Well, people did subscribe. Ms. Quackenbush took over management of the Mechanic and built it into one of the most successful road houses in the country.

Baltimore owes much to her. For that matter, I owe her something -- an apology. I never told her that the "canceled" season that caused her so much despair had been my idea.

Have a good life, Hope.

R. H. Gardner, retired drama and film critic of The Sun, is author of "Those Years: Recollections of a Baltimore Newspaperman."

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