Helen Maria Garner, 42, museum re-enactor

November 23, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Helen Maria Garner, a museum re-enactor and musician, died Saturday of respiratory failure at Maryland General Hospital. She was 42 and lived in Bolton Hill.

Dressed in an 1830s-style hunter green gown, she greeted students and tourists at the Edgar Allan Poe House Museum on Amity Street in West Baltimore, where she was living history director and assistant director of public relations.

As part of the fictional persona she adopted for her work, she called herself Sarah, a neighbor of Poe's who welcomed callers when he was not at home.

"She really put her heart and soul into her work. She enthralled people with her 1830 demeanor," said Jeff Jerome, Poe House curator. "Tourists who came to the house said they felt as if they really were listening to someone from that time period."

She researched clothes of the period -- she used an 1830s pattern book -- and had the dress made in dark green taffeta.

"She was the kind of person who could really get into another time period. She loved to tell stories in a very animated, musical voice," said Debi Wynn, director of the theater at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, where Miss Garner also had worked. "She was a very talented lady. She was a musician by training and that only added to her creative spirit."

Born in Toronto, Canada, she attended Cleveland State University, where she studied vocal music.

She moved to Baltimore in the 1980s and continued her musical training with soprano Julianne Baird, who teaches at Rutgers University.

She studied music of the 17th and 18th centuries and organized the Franklin Players, an ensemble that performed works of the Revolutionary War and early Federal period.

In the 1990s, Miss Garner sang soprano in the choir of Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church on Monument Street in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.

"She had a lovely voice," said the Rev. Frederick S. Thomas, the church's rector. "She was a popular chorister."

She had been a museum tour guide and later director of public relations at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway in the Inner Harbor.

There she arranged a program on a quartet of local personages -- Poe, Harriet Tubman, Francis Scott Key and H.L. Mencken. She also ran the museum's summer day camp.

"She was much interested in Baltimore's history," said Michael Westman, a friend. "She helped the museum to get some of its artifacts."

"She was a vivacious, creative and talented person, so full of life," said Ann Steele, the museum's former deputy director, who now lives in Detroit. "She had a lot of actress in her, too. She was excellent with children.

"When we had a haunted house [for Halloween], she was a witch and made a great character," Miss Steele said. "Children really responded to her."

Miss Garner told her friends that working at the Poe House was a "dream job." She named her black cat Poe.

She is survived by her mother, Margaret Garner of Fairview Park, Ohio. A marriage to Jon Peter ended in divorce.

A memorial service is being planned.

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