Special Tony fits him to a `T'

May 09, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Baltimore native T. Edward Hambleton, who will be honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Tony Awards ceremony in New York next month, could be described as one of the first off-Broadway impresarios. But he's hardly the stereotyped tough-talking, cigar chomping theatrical producer.

A soft-spoken, unassuming gentleman, Hambleton, 89, learned of the award when he received a call Friday from Roy A. Somlyo, president of the American Theatre Wing, which co-administers the awards.

"It was certainly a pleasure being noted after all these many years. I am delighted to be alive to receive it," Hambleton said with typical wry humor yesterday from his Timonium home. He and his wife, Merrell, plan to attend the June 4 event.

The scion of a prominent Baltimore banking family, Hambleton co-founded off-Broadway's groundbreaking Phoenix Theatre in 1953 when theater was, as he once put it, "either Broadway or not in New York."

The Phoenix closed in 1982, but during its three-decade existence it paved the way for countless other off-Broadway and non-profit theaters and played a prominent role in the theater careers of such notables as Helen Hayes, Rosemary Harris, Meryl Streep, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Arthur Kopit and Harold Prince.

Hambleton, who is known as "T.," said he received a voice-mail message of congratulations over the weekend from Prince, who is currently in China. In the 1970s Prince, who has won more Tonys (20) than anyone else, served as artistic director of a repertory company at the Phoenix.

Locally, Hambleton was a consultant in the mid-1970s when the city established the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts to run the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, and he was a founding board member of Center Stage.

At Center Stage, he was responsible for bringing in Peter W. Culman as managing director.

"I think it's superb," said Culman, who is retiring from Center Stage next month after 34 years.

"The powers that be in the New York theater world have recognized all that T. meant and did in the theater," he said. "It's not only an issue of the various well-known productions that he did, but it's the number of people in the theater world whose lives have been affected by T.'s special passion and warmth."

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