Curtain call

December 03, 2003

ON OPENING night at the elegantly restored Hippodrome Theater, there will be a singular voice missing from the audience. When the orchestra strikes up the overture of the rollicking musical The Producers, some in the crowd will recall a producer of a different sort who championed Baltimore to Broadway showmen and playwrights and secured for the city an essential element of a thriving cultural life. As they say in the theater, Hope Quackenbush will be missed in the house.

Her death last weekend reminds us of the city's social and cultural transformation over the past four decades and the cadre of people essential to any urban renaissance, whether it's in an aging port city or a classic Southern capital. Although not a native, Mrs. Quackenbush embraced the city with the verve of a true Baltimorean and the warmth of the Midwesterner that she was.

Mrs. Quackenbush - Hope to most anyone who knew her - arrived here with her banker husband at a time of unrest and uncertainty, the mid-1960s. Unfazed, she thrust herself into Baltimore's civic life and, together with another transplant, Sandra S. Hillman, organized the City Fair. Back then, the idea that the diversity of Baltimore's neighborhoods could be showcased - celebrated, in fact - in a central venue and held downtown was, well, unthinkable.

But city neighborhood leaders bought into the idea, joined together and assembled under a big tent in Charles Center in September 1970. More than 340,000 people came over three days. The City Fair's success proved "that you could bring tens of thousands of people downtown to share time and space with a happy result," recalls Mrs. Hillman. And that proof was necessary for the dreams and schemes of the city's other big boosters.

If the City Fair was Mrs. Quackenbush's first city production, her stewardship of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre proved to be her longest-running hit, 14 years. She didn't have a theater background, but it didn't matter. Mrs. Quackenbush not only helped keep the Mechanic open, as its managing director, she also galvanized its base of subscribers and turned it into one of the most successful locally supported theaters in America. The Broadway blockbusters such as Annie were an easy sell, but she took risks with shows such as Torch Song Trilogy to give patrons a unique theatrical experience.

When the curtain goes up at the new Hippodrome on Feb. 10, a center orchestra seat will be left vacant in Mrs. Quackenbush's memory. Of the people who defined the city during its renaissance, she was one singular sensation.

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