That's for remembrance

Baltimore Glimpses

February 01, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

IF YOU walk into the parking lot on the north side of Fayette Street just east of Eutaw, and then walk through what appears to be an alley, you will be standing on the very spot where Alfred Lunt played opposite Lynn Fontanne in "Elizabeth the Queen."

It was here, too, where Tallulah Bankhead did "The Skin of Our Teeth" and Humphrey Bogart and Judith Anderson did "Saturday's Children" -- to say nothing of Julie Harris, Rosalind Russell, Melvyn Douglas and many others.

Hallowed ground.

This very special piece of real estate is as close as Glimpses can find to where the stage of Ford's Theater used to be before that "Temple of Drama" (as it was called in earlier days) was leveled to make way -- yes -- for more parking.

Within memory, from the 1920s and into the early 1960s, Ford's was Baltimore's legitimate theater, the splendid progenitor of the Mechanic. The last show was Feb. 2, 1964, 30 years ago tomorrow.

It was a night to remember, which we do with you now.

The show was "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," starring Jerry Lester, supported by Arnold Stang and Edward Everett Horton. Everybody on both sides of the footlights knew this was the last show. At intermission, Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin said, "I refuse to say farewell!" He promised a "rebirth of theater in Baltimore," although it was movies and television that had killed Ford's and other legitimate theaters.

After the curtain came down the final time, Lester came stage front and coaxed the audience to silence.

He began in a light mood but did not end in one. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, in order to get the demolition off to a good start, the management would like you to take your seats home with you. . . The legitimate stage was once described as 'the fabulous invalid.' Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we have lost the patient." He could have added that the patient was 92 years old.

Then he brought the audience to its feet and led it in a chorus of "Auld Lang Syne." With the dying strains, the crowd made its way slowly to the exits.

Then, a funny thing happened. The crowd was stopped in its tracks as another crowd of souvenir hunters entered Ford's to grab everything that wasn't nailed down (and much that was): strips of curtains and carpet and molding, knobs, light bulbs, door hinges.

One man came equipped with a screwdriver and was seen unscrewing lamps, wall ornaments and anything else he could find that was screwed down.

When the crowd at long last dispersed, there was a black-tie party in the lobby. Gov. J. Millard Tawes joined Dorothy Lamour, the actress who was then a member of the Civic Center Commission.

But there was to be one final and melodramatic scene in the story of the closing of Ford's Theater.

The Monday morning after Lester's poignant farewell, a wrecker's ball smashed into the Fayette Street wall, leaving a pile of rubble where Ford's had stood since 1871.

Around noon, two women made their way carefully over the pile. They were Saile Gavin and May Richardson, granddaughters of John Ford, the founder. As Ophelia did in "Hamlet" on the grave of Polonius ("There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, remember"), they sprinkled rosemary on the "grave" of Ford's. "It was May's idea," Ms. Gavin recalled. "She's very sentimental. She called me up and said she wanted to do it, and would I go along? I said I would. We sprinkled the rosemary and said a few private goodbyes and walked off. It was a very cold day."

Remembering it, 30 years later on another very cold day, gives Glimpses a chill.

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