The woman of the house


Quackenbush put city on theater map

December 04, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The date was April 16, 1985, opening night for a new musical called Grind at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway. The show had played an exclusive pre-Broadway tryout in Baltimore - one of more than two dozen tryouts Hope Quackenbush brought here during her years as managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts.

Directed by Harold Prince and starring Ben Vereen, Grind, a musical about a Chicago burlesque house in the 1930s, certainly sounded promising. But the show had its problems in Baltimore (beginning with a malfunctioning set) and the critics didn't exactly warm to it on Broadway, where it closed in three months, losing its entire $4.75 million investment.

There's a feeling of forced fun that settles into a Broadway theater on opening night of a show whose future looks less than rosy. During the performance, the audience - packed with producers and investors - cheers a little too loudly. At the party afterward, that initial feeling is reversed, and people drift away as if they only came to pay their respects.

On this particular night, Quackenbush and I were among those who drifted away. Specifically, we drifted to the Algonquin Hotel, the quirky landmark and longtime hangout for theatrical types and literati. Chatting over veal stew from the hotel's after-theater buffet, we might have been any two out-of-towners who'd come to New York to take in the latest Broadway show.

Grind hadn't been all it might have been, but far from disheartened, Quackenbush was sanguine. She was a woman who loved theater in all its forms and loved bringing something new to Baltimore, whose theatergoers she cultivated into a supportive audience for tryouts.

Quackenbush, who died Saturday at age 78, also had a reputation for nurturing actors. At times, she and her husband Bruce moved out of their Mount Vernon apartment so a star would have all the comforts of home. In the case of Grind, she sheepishly admitted to me that she had ventured into an X-rated lingerie shop in her neighborhood to buy opening-night gifts for the cast.

She was tireless in her pursuit of tryouts, eventually building her subscription audience to more than 20,000 spread over four weeks - a healthy cushion for any Broadway producer looking for an out-of-town venue to iron out the kinks before landing on the Great White Way.

Among the prestige pre-Broadway shows that played the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre during Quackenbush's tenure were: A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine, a musical comedy about movie icons, directed by Tommy Tune; Sly Fox, an adaptation of Volpone by Larry Gelbart, starring George C. Scott; Brian Friel's Faith Healer, starring James Mason, returning to the stage after more than three decades; Othello, starring James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer; Lend Me a Tenor, Ken Ludwig's backstage farce about opera; and Filumena, an Italian play that was especially dear to Quackenbush because none other than Laurence Olivier stepped in as director after the sudden departure of Franco Zeffirelli.

The size of her subscription base was only one reason Quackenbush was able to attract first-class tryouts to Baltimore. Equally important was her sterling reputation. She was a woman who exuded integrity in a business that sometimes falls short in that area. Though Quackenbush retired more than a decade ago, her name was frequently raised by Broadway producers or industry insiders when they learned I was from Baltimore.

"She's so highly regarded, I might almost use the word `revered,'" George Wachtel, then director of research for the League of American Theatres and Producers, told me at the time of her retirement in 1993.

Although she never mentioned it, Quackenbush was one of the first women to serve as managing director of a commercial road house. "I don't think Hope probably thinks of herself as a feminist or a ground-breaker," Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann said of her in 1993. "I just think it was something she wanted to do and she did it."

Quackenbush's interest in Broadway tryouts typified her outlook in general; she was a woman who always looked ahead. She was in on the ground floor in 1976 when, under the auspices of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, Baltimore became one of the first cities in the country to take a commercial theater under its wing - a practice subsequently adopted by cities from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale.

A decade and a half later, when she stepped down, Quackenbush was still planning for the future. In the short term, she was booking the National Theatre of Great Britain's production of The Madness of George III into the Mechanic, where it played the longest engagement in its U.S. tour. "Today I think I sewed up a guarantee for George III - I can now breathe easy," she wrote me shortly after she retired.

But it's her long-range plans that will leave a lasting impact on Baltimore. Quackenbush was instrumental in launching the negotiations that eventually led to the renovations of the Hippodrome Theater. Without her foresight, we might not now be looking forward to its reopening in February.

The last Mechanic Theatre production that Quackenbush attended wasn't at the Mechanic. Performed off-site, at Scarlett Place in 1999, it was the audience-participation show Tony n' Tina's Wedding.

I remember watching her dance at that make-believe wedding. "Isn't this fun!" she said. A theatergoer for whom serious drama was as much fun as musical comedy, Hope Quackenbush shared the joy she found in live theater with legions of Baltimoreans. They and this city as a whole are richer for it.

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