'Hal' Gardner, 76, Sun theater, film critic

R. H.

March 05, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

R. H. "Hal" Gardner, an author and retired theater and film critic for The Sun, died of leukemia at his West University Parkway home yesterday. He was 76.

For exactly 33 years until his 1984 retirement, the Kentucky boy who fell in love with Baltimore delighted, advised and occasionally enraged Sun readers with his essays on the city's entertainment world.

He sat his readers next to stars such as Melvyn Douglas and Tallulah Bankhead, he put them at a table at Morris Martick's cafe on West Mulberry Street, and he put them in touch with a distinct character, pool-hall philosopher Lorry Quackenbush.

"I think it's true that there's nobody who knew the theatrical and film world in the Middle Atlantic area the way that Hal did," said Carleton Jones, a retired Sun writer, editor and former roommate of Mr. Gardner. "He had seen practically everything."

But Mr. Gardner was more than a spectator.

He is credited with coaching the birth in 1963 of Center Stage, and the same year, when the old Ford's Theater might have been razed to make room for a parking garage, he put its owner on notice.

"From my exalted position in a job paying about $100 a week," Mr. Gardner wrote upon his retirement, "I told this multimillionaire . . . that if he closed Ford's, thereby destroying legitimate theater in Baltimore, I would never forgive him."

The owner, Morris A. Mechanic, decided to rebuild the theater instead, as part of the city's new Charles Center redevelopment.

"He was one of the really good theater writers in this city and a dedicated theater man," said Hope Quackenbush, retired managing director of the Mechanic Theatre's Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, upon hearing of Mr. Gardner's death.

"Hal was a mentor, to me and to anyone else who tried to really understand the work of various playwrights," she said. "He was a great teacher for the public. He was able to tell through his reviews what that playwright was trying to do and whether he got where he was trying to go."

Shelley Post was trying to establish her acting career in an early Center Stage production when she ran afoul in 1963 of the biting wit Mr. Gardner could employ in his reviews. "He wrote that the production was on three different levels, and the one I was on was the high and screechy level," she remembered.

But she wrote to him, saying he had perfectly captured the production's flaws, and the two became friends, and eventually companions for life. She and Mr. Gardner married in 1986.

Mr. Gardner's first Baltimore love affair began, however, "on a sweltering hot Sunday in September of 1941 at Baltimore's Camden Station," he wrote in his 1990 memoirs, "Those Years: Recollections of a Baltimore Newspaperman."

His first book, entitled "The Splintered Stage: The Decline of the American Theater," was published in 1965.

The son of a Mayfield, Ky., Baptist and furniture salesman, Mr. Gardner had recently graduated from Texas Christian University. Baltimore, he was to avoid serving in World War II by securing a defense job at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant.

But Mr. Gardner sought something else from what he saw as a city of Edgar Allan Poe, the Peabody Conservatory and Ford's Theater. "Undoubtedly, it offered great opportunities for acquiring culture and, as one who doted on such things, I was itching to get started. So the first thing I did, after stowing my bags in a Cathedral Street rooming house, was go to a burlesque show."

After his eight years at Martin, brief stints as an insurance salesman and a playwright, he was hired as a general-assignment reporter with The Sun. Three years later, he became a theater critic.

At The Sun, Mr. Jones remembered, Mr. Gardner gave famous stripper Blaze Starr her first splash in the press.

He typically began his workday in late afternoon, but long after other feature writers had left, he was still in his office, crafting the language that would put his readers in touch with the exciting and inspiring side of their city.

"He never required any work, any editing. It was just beautifully polished," said Harold A. Williams, for many years Mr. Gardner's boss.

Mr. Gardner will be buried in his Mayfield, Ky., hometown, which is the subject and title of his final book, completed in December. A local memorial service for Mr. Gardner will be private.

Besides his wife, Mr. Gardner is survived by his longtime friend, Rose Martick.

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