Next stage uncertain for grande dame

Theater: Plans to revive the Hippodrome threaten not only her husband's legacy, but Clarisse B. Mechanic's cherished role.

March 19, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

At a luncheon she held last fall for the Advertising & Professional Club of Baltimore, Clarisse B. Mechanic skittered about a ballroom greeting dear old friends, state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. among them.

The diminutive Mechanic did what she often does in the spotlight. She pushed her chin to her chest and gazed up demurely, smiling all the while. "Coquettish" is how her friend Nan Rosenthal put it: "She's glad you're making a big deal, but you shouldn't."

The quietly connected Mechanic is a grande dame of Baltimore theater. She has been part of the theater and film scene here for more than 50 years, the past 35 presiding over the boxy downtown playhouse built by her late husband, Morris A. Mechanic.

Her contacts and charity work have led to enduring friendships with local power players. And the list of stars she has known reads like the Turner Classic Movies lineup: Gregory Peck, Joan Crawford, Edward G. Robinson. One of her best friends was "psychic to the stars" Jeane Dixon, who, Mechanic says, foretold of an illness.

Though she still attends most opening nights in 3-inch heels, her life today is less glamorous. She does not party with celebrities and is known to ride public buses on occasion.

But one thing hasn't changed. She is fiercely protective of her family-owned theater, which she considers her husband's defining legacy 36 years after his death. Now, a $60 million public-private project to revive the 2,250-seat Hippodrome Theater for Broadway shows threatens not just the 1,600-seat Mechanic but her cherished role.

City development officials and performing arts experts concede the Mechanic's fate is up in the air, and friends say the uncertainty troubles her deeply.

"She talks about that practically every time we get together," said Robert C. "Jake" Embry, a 93-year-old former broadcasting and sports executive. "She's worried about everybody contributing to the renewal of the Hippodrome. She's afraid it might put them out of business. She doesn't know what she's going to do."

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who was a City Council member when the Mechanic opened at Charles and Baltimore streets as part of the Charles Center renewal project, says city leaders have shown disrespect.

"It's so easy to forget what the Mechanic meant to the city of Baltimore at a time when we were really struggling to bring people downtown. That's not the way to deal with her. ... The fact they just ignored her, I just resented that," said the former mayor and governor.

That may be changing. Mark Sissman, hired last fall to help with the Hippodrome project, has asked to meet with her. He wants to "memorialize" the Mechanic at the Hippodrome, scheduled to open in early 2004, and discuss what might become of her family's venue, called outmoded by some.

Sissman heads the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit group that leases the Mechanic but is shifting its focus to the 88-year-old Hippodrome a few blocks away on Eutaw Street.

Mechanic seems reluctant to enter the fray publicly. Asked whether she fretted about the Hippodrome, she replied, unconvincingly, "There isn't any reason for me, is there?"

She said she could not fathom the point of a newspaper article about her. "I don't see why they'd be interested in me," she said with a nervous giggle, adding firmly that her age is nobody's business. (She means it. It doesn't appear in numerous public records.)

She promised nonetheless to give an interview over lunch - yet never found time in five months. "Busy and dizzy," she'd say in her small voice when a reporter called to set a date. "Tax time," she often said. "Busy time of year." Even so, a sketch of her life emerges from a dozen brief phone conversations with her, interviews with friends and newspaper stories.

Born Clarisse Barron, she grew up in Cleveland and New York. Her brother, Blue Barron (his legal name), became an orchestra leader in the 1930s after starting out with Sammy Kaye. When Blue served in World War II, Clarisse managed her brother's band, learning show business.

Polish-born Morris Mechanic came to Baltimore as a child and in 1929 bought his first theater, the New, as an investment. In time, he added others: Ford's, Century, Valencia, Centre, the Stanley, memories now.

Clarisse and Morris met in 1945 through the owners of the Edison and other hotels in New York and married a few years later. She handled bookings for Ford's, traveling often to New York.

They lived well. When Morris Mechanic owned the Hotel Belvedere, they resided in a ninth-floor suite that The Sun said in 1949 "puts to shame even some Hollywood notions on decor."

When they moved to a 10,000-square-foot home on Blythewood Road in Homeland, lavish parties continued. They decamped in 1954 after burglars broke in one night and stole cash, silver and liquor - and drank pilfered Champagne on the lawn.

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