Early accounts of city's future Broadway star

November 03, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Louisa Reynolds stood on an unheated stage in an empty theater and read lines to a young aspiring actress.

"It was as cold as a welldigger's grave that day," says Mrs. Reynolds, an 80-something lady. We were in the parlor of her Roland Park Place apartment.

The year was 1929 and standing opposite her on the chilly stage was a performer who possessed more promise than fame. Her name was Mildred Natwick, who after a long career on Broadway and in Hollywood, died last week.

In her prime, there was rarely a Broadway season when Mildred Natwick's name wasn't listed in a theater program.

And of that small number of Baltimoreans who have gone on to make it in the big time, was there ever one who captured the home town sympathy and respect the way Mildred Natwick did? And when she took her own well-earned bows, she never forgot the city and audiences who first recognized her talent.

"I don't ever think she ever gave a bad performance. Her Madame Arcati in 'Blithe Spirit' was one of those magic roles," says Mrs. Reynolds, who spent a few weeks working with a young and unknown Mildred Natwick in 1929.

"We were in the Vagabonds' production of 'Playboy of the Western World' in the old theater, really a stable on Monument Street where it dips down the hill from St. Paul to Calvert.

"We had very small parts, but on one weekend of the run, we were allowed to take bigger roles. Mildred asked me to rehearse lines with her.

"The theater was empty and cold, so cold. Mildred arrived in a gorgeous mink coat. Her family was what we used to call 'well fixed.'

"When she went on the stage before an audience, she gave a completely different interpretation to the role. It was amazing. She brought wit and grace and subtlety to the performance. She did this the rest of her life in whatever she appeared in," Mrs. Reynolds says.

The two women went back to the dressing room at intermission. In walked two men from the audience.

"They were talent scouts and they asked her right then and there, 'Would you like to come to New York?'

"She stayed in the Irish accent the play called for and said, 'Oh, yes.' "

There, backstage at the old Vagabond Theatre on Monument Street, directly behind the Center Stage building, a professional career began for a woman Baltimore long remembered as its own special find.

"Mildred had an absolutely natural talent. She was not good looking at all. She got where she was on her acting," Mrs. Reynolds says.

Natwick's career was solid and professional. When a role called for an older woman of good breeding, maybe with a touch of controlled comic insanity, a casting director would say, "Get Natwick."

In her last big role, that of Mrs. Banks in Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," she appeared with a young Robert Redford. As always, she played the older woman, in this case, the mother of Elizabeth Ashley.

And until the end, didn't she always look as if she could be a Baltimorean having a chicken salad and tomato aspic lunch at the Woman's Industrial Exchange?

And yet, for an actress who made a delightful specialty of gray-hair roles, she lopped a few years off her official age in her biography. And while she may have indulged herself in that vanity, she did not slight her local origin.

"Mildred never forgot her Baltimore years though she lived on Park Avenue and was very much a New Yorker," Mrs. Reynolds says.

Louisa Reynolds and Mildred Natwick never appeared together on the stage when the latter went to New York.

Mrs. Reynolds loved local theater, especially the small houses where amateurs and semi-professionals tough it out for long hours with no pay. "I'd say I still go to the theater weekly, about 40 times a year. It's exhilarating. It lifts you up. I seldom see anything I don't like," Mrs. Reynolds says.

"Baltimore is so lucky. We still have our Vagabonds. And the Spotlighters, Towson State, Loyola, Essex, Dundalk, Theater Hopkins, Fells Point Corner, the Mechanic and the Lyric.

"There's even something called the Axis Theatre in Woodberry. There was a play there with a name so naughty the papers would not print the title. I loved it. Thought it was great."

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