'Dearie' Burger leaves life's stage at 93 Youth drama director believed acting helped children mature

February 15, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Isabel B. "Dearie" Burger, whose love of children and drama led to the creation of Baltimore's renowned Children's Theater Association in 1943, died Saturday in her sleep at Union Memorial Hospital, where she had been hospitalized for about a week. The Homeland resident was 93.

The Children's Theater Association -- which annually stages a half-dozen productions seen by about 100,000 children -- is a testament to Mrs. Burger's philosophy that drama was a means for children to prepare themselves for the role of being an adult.

"She used to say that 'playacting is a child's rehearsal for their role as a grown-up,' and that drama helped a child develop emotionally," said Richard Dix, a professional actor who was a member of the CTA in the 1940s.

Mrs. Burger also made it clear that she wasn't in the business of running an actors school, even though many of her CTA students went on to successful careers on Broadway and in television and regional theater.

"She wasn't interested in taking on a student who was experienced or talented, and she would send them elsewhere," Mr. Dix said. "If a psychologist called, she would take the troubled child in a moment."

Mrs. Burger was a vivacious woman with a patrician bearing who wore her hair in the swept-back style favored by the actress Katharine Hepburn.

The former Isabel Blogg was born and raised in Baltimore and lived her entire life in her family's early 19th-century home at Melrose and Bellona avenues in North Baltimore.

She was a 1920 graduate of the Bryn Mawr School, where she credited renowned scholar Edith Hamilton, who taught her Greek and philosophy, with instilling in her the classical values of a sound mind in a sound body.

She earned a bachelor's degree in 1924 from the Johns Hopkins University and took a teaching position at the Greenwood School, a private girls school, for the next 11 years.

She discovered her life's work while working as a counselor in 1920 at Camp Asquam in Squam Lake, N.H. In seeking to comfort a tent full of homesick 10-year-old girls, she had them act out stories she wrote.

The gambit proved so successful that she directed the camp's dramatic productions every summer thereafter, until her marriage in 1924 to Dr. T. Terry Burger, a prominent Baltimore pediatrician, who died in 1984.

In 1940, Mrs. Burger was teaching a course for drama teachers at Hopkins, where she further developed her technique of allowing children to express themselves through drama.

Out of the course grew the idea for the Children's Educational Theater, which Mrs. Burger founded at Hopkins in 1941.

Two years later, it became the Children's Theater Association.

The CTA was headquartered in a Ploy Street carriage house, at 5 E. Centre St. and at other locations in North Baltimore. It is now at 121 McMechen St.

In the 1960s, the CTA converted a green moving van into the Showmobile, which toured Maryland, playing shopping center parking lots, elementary schools and recreation centers until the early 1970s, when the gas crunch brought its travels to an end.

Rhea Feiken, a popular Baltimore television and radio personality and co-founder of Center Stage, attended Mrs. Burger's CTA classes in the late 1940s. She described the experience as "incredible."

"She was very glamorous and the first woman I ever saw who wore mascara and high-heeled shoes all the time," Ms. Feiken said with a laugh. "However, she sized me up in about 30 seconds, and when she put those blue eyes of hers on you, you knew that she could see right into your soul."

Ms. Feiken credited Mrs. Burger with being one of the most important people in her life, saying, "What we became in our lives we owe to her. We were different because of her."

Other CTA alumni include the late Howard Ashman, the Baltimore native who won an Academy Award for his song "Under the Sea" in Disney's "The Little Mermaid"; Otts Munderloh, Broadway sound designer, whose work included "Jelly's Last Jam"; and George Lewis, who was "Captain Chesapeake" on WBFF-TV for 20 years.

"She was one of the largest contributing factors in my success," Mr. Lewis said.

In later years, she became a champion of the elderly and proclaimed the virtues of drama for them.

"She was a dramatic individual who would speak with such gusto in her later years for senior citizens. She was a great encouragement for living, and her death is certainly the passing of an era," said Royal Parker, who served as host of "The Later Years" on WBAL-TV during the 1980s and early 1990s. Mrs. Burger was a frequent and popular guest on the show.

"She was quite a grand dame and a great madame of the stage, and she knew she was a lady of the theater," Mr. Parker said.

Mrs. Burger retired from CTA in 1966 to write and lecture.

She wrote 40 plays for children and three textbooks -- "Creative Play Acting," "Creative Drama" and "Creative Drama for Senior Citizens," which has been translated into several languages.

Memorial services will be held at 11 a.m. today at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer Chapel, 5603 N. Charles St., where she was a lifelong communicant.

Survivors include a son, Thomas T. Burger of Palos Verdes, Calif.; a daughter, Jane B. Turner of Hermosa Beach, Calif.; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

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