Cohen sprinkled fairy dust on Baltimore theater

Downtown revival: The late New York theater producer bought magic to this city after dark.

April 29, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

Alexander Cohen, the New York theater producer who died at 79 last week, arrived in Baltimore for a brief stay in the middle 1970s, scattering with him massive doses of the theater magic this town needed. He was engaged, by the powers of the William Donald Schaefer administration, to book plays and musical shows at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, which had fallen on bad times and was threatened with permanent closure.

Cohen also had a larger mission. He was called in to revive the downtown Baltimore that was pre-Harborplace, pre-National Aquarium, pre-Oriole Park. As a loyal Baltimorean, I'm not saying this was a bad place, but I will agree that Cohen added plenty of lively arts spice to the scene.

"He really woke up a theater," said Clarisse Mechanic, who owns the venerable, 33-year-old playhouse at Charles and Baltimore streets. I could not agree more as I think back to many happy nights at the Mechanic and plenty of after-theater good times.

He saw past Baltimore's severe case of a bad image and was quoted in the papers as saying his aim was to put champagne in the Mechanic's water coolers.

While he didn't get too much credit at the time, he succeeded in bringing in some smash hits of the era ("A Chorus Line") -- and some needed patrons to downtown restaurants, bars and other places.

His contribution here was considerable, just when we needed some fun and entertainment. He also brought some theatrical flops and near-misses.

I was never bored -- and had the chance to see the kind of actors, live, on stage, that you only catch these days in films. It was one of my own best chapters of local theatergoing. If nothing else, the shows were numerous, and the selection changed frequently.

More than anything, he coaxed some 22,000 Baltimoreans to subscribe to the theater and get in the habit of coming downtown after many had given up on Baltimore after dark.

Baltimore, which then had winning sports teams, was just beginning to awaken from a long cultural slumber -- Center Stage was just moving to Calvert Street, and other theater companies were forming.

Alex Cohen, whose face resembled the character actor Oscar Homolka (of the movie "I Remember Mama"), dressed formally in shirts with a spread collar and ties in a Windsor knot. His hair was straight, always combed. He was a gentleman of the theater.

It's been 20-some years since he sat down to lunch with me, and two of my best News American friends, the paper's editor, Tom White, and its arts critic, R.P. Harriss. The stories that afternoon at the Maryland Club circled around the table. Mr. Cohen never seemed the least bit bored with us. He certainly amused us.

He threw a great news conference. Because he was so well-connected in New York -- for years he and his wife, Hildy Parks, produced the Tony Awards -- he could get the biggest of the theatrical names to Baltimore.

I last saw Alex Cohen two years ago, in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York. He had brought over from London a production of "The Herbal Bed," a play that had been a big hit in England. The U.S. cast was not up to the roles, and the play bombed -- badly. He looked worried. But he was still taking chances -- supplying audiences with the entertainment we so much wanted.

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