`Great promoter' of Baltimore and a founder of the City Fair

Mechanic director helped revive theater during 14-year tenure

Hope Quackenbush : 1925-2003

December 02, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Hope Quackenbush, a tireless promoter of Baltimore's downtown renaissance as a founder of the City Fair and longtime director of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, died of dementia Saturday at FutureCare-Cherrywood Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Owings Mills. She was 78.

Moving to Baltimore from the Midwest in the 1960s, she became a civic activist and city employee and was often credited as one of the architects of Baltimore's rebirth in the next decade - largely through her vision of the City Fair as a showcase of urban diversity.

She later transformed what had been a declining downtown theater by persuading about 22,000 subscribers to pay for an annual season of plays and musicals that she booked.

"She was a great salesman, a great promoter. She did an unbelievable job with the Mechanic," said Robert C. Embry Jr., who was her boss in the city Department of Housing and Community Development and now is director of the Abell Foundation. "And for not being home-grown, she had an amazing love for the city."

A native of Chicago, Hope Donaghue attended Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., and the University of Chicago, where she studied English literature. She then briefly worked in fashion and was an editor for McCall's magazine. She also ran a clothing boutique in Wheaton, Ill., and served on the school board there.

She moved to Baltimore in 1966 when her husband, W. Bruce Quackenbush, a Commercial Credit Corp. executive, was transferred here. She became a volunteer with the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and later was hired as a public relations aide for the city housing department.

With downtown in decline in 1970, Mr. Embry asked his staff to come up with an idea to brighten Baltimore's image of itself.

In a lunch session with Mrs. Quackenbush and her colleague and friend Sandra S. Hillman, the idea for the first City Fair was born. The first one in 1970 drew more than 400,000 people to Charles Center. Traditionally held during a September weekend, the fair continued at other sites - in the early years, at downtown areas undergoing renewal - until 1991, when the final fair was held near Memorial Stadium.

"It was Hope's ebullience and her charm that made it work," Sandy Hillman said yesterday. "She was also very crafty. She knew how to get people to work. ... Everybody wanted to be in Hope's orbit."

"She came to Baltimore and took it by storm," said Christopher C. Hartman, a former director of CPHA and City Fair chairman. "She absolutely believed in the city when very few people did. She had extremely wild ideas, which she refined down into workable concepts.

"Hope always maintained that Baltimore's strength was in its people and their neighborhoods. She believed that in their own quiet way they were doing more than all the government programs combined. She celebrated the diversity of the city."

"I had always thought that the fashion business was what I'd do, but I decided [city promotion] was a hell of a lot more important than the length of a hem," Mrs. Quackenbush said in a 1982 Sun interview.

Shortly after the first fair, Mrs. Quackenbush returned to Minneapolis with her husband. She worked as a public relations consultant and staged a gala for the Minneapolis Symphony. He was called back to Baltimore in 1976, and she returned, this time as publicity director at the Mechanic.

The theater, then 9 years old, was down to 3,000 subscribers and in danger of closing. Within two years, Mrs. Quackenbush became managing director and set out to bolster its season subscriber list. She topped out at 22,000 subscribers - one of the largest theater-support bases in the country - with seat demands prompting three-week runs for her shows.

Friends said she made her former Charles Street apartment, overlooking Mount Vernon's Washington Place, into a home away from home for her leading ladies and men: Carol Channing, Elaine Stritch, Jessica Tandy and her husband, Hume Cronyn, Lena Horne, Vincent Price and Rex Harrison. She also looked after playwright Arthur Miller and choreographer Jerome Robbins when show business brought them to Baltimore.

"She would do anything to keep the stars happy and contented," said Norman Zagier, her former publicity aide. "One night, she escorted Laurence Olivier into the theater, and the whole audience recognized him and rose for a standing ovation."

"Everybody knew of her in New York," said Roy Somlyo, past president of the American Theatre Wing, which promotes excellence in the theater and stages the annual Tony Awards. "Her reputation wasn't confined to Baltimore. She made marvelous contributions to the American theater."

"She was never affected by the snobberies of the theater," said Gerald Bordman, a Philadelphia theater scholar and author of the Oxford Companion to the American Theatre. "She was a warm and level-headed person."

With some help from a New York booking agent, Mrs. Quackenbush learned what local audiences wanted.

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