Hope Quackenbush's legacy can be seen throughout city

December 09, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

HOPE Quackenbush helped turn the lights back on in Baltimore's psyche. She insisted there could be life after death downtown. She turned the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre into a winner, and helped blanket the city's nervous emotional landscape with joyful City Fairs, and years later she said one of the sweetest things I ever heard.

"Weren't you worried about that first City Fair?" I asked her one day.

"No, no," she said. "We were so anxious for it to be great. All of us were running around and telling people, `Please love us.' We were trying so hard, who could resist us?"

At the Mechanic Theatre yesterday afternoon, they held a memorial service at which everyone remembered the city's irresistible lady. Quackenbush died last week, at 78, after a long twilight struggle with dementia that robbed her of so many sweet memories. But others held onto them: of Hope helping to rally a city that had ceased believing in itself until that first City Fair, and of Hope taking a downtown theater nobody wanted to attend and turning it into a Broadway showcase for more season-ticket holders than anyone ever imagined.

"She embraced the people around her like a Carol Channing mink coat," said Nancy Haragan, director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.

"You don't find as many people as selflessly dedicated to a city as she was," said Robert Embry, director of the Abell Foundation.

"It was Hope who had the idea for that first City Fair," said Chris Hartman, who met her when he was a young newspaper editor.

It was long ago - astonishingly, a third of a century now - but a generation still remembers. The city was living in the shadow of the '68 riots and the Flower Mart chaos. Downtown was utterly deserted after dark. When skeptics heard about the City Fair proposal, they predicted fighting in the streets. Instead, it brought hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes and offered the first real hope of Baltimore's rejuvenation.

"The first time I met her," said Hartman, who was an assistant Sunday editor at the old News American back then, "I was new in town and Lou Azrael" - the paper's longtime columnist - "told me, `If you want to know about this city, go talk to Hope Quackenbush.'

"She was working for CPHA [the Citizens Planning and Housing Association] at the time. I walk in, she gave me that smile of hers, reached into her bottom left-hand drawer and poured out two glasses of scotch. `I'll tell you about this city,' she said. And that's how it got started."

Quackenbush went to work for Embry, then the city's housing commissioner, who was insisting, "We've got to get this city out of the doldrums." He was saying it to Quackenbush and Hartman, and to Sandy Hillman, too.

"Hope," Hartman remembered, "had this wonderful idea to mix the neighborhoods. A festival with neighborhoods. She said a city wasn't a melting pot, it was vegetable soup, and the different ingredients were what made them great. She said, `If we get people out there, they'll see that they're not alone, that they care about the city, and maybe even care about each other.'"

Which is precisely what happened and for two decades helped lift the city out of its bunker mentality. We started to perceive each other as neighbors living in the same small place, quietly desiring each other's good will. That is her legacy. We began to venture out of our homes after dark, so that destinations such as Harborplace and Oriole Park and a Power Plant complex filled with young people could be perceived as more than fantasy. That is her legacy. And she showed us that live theater was meant for everyone and ultimately paved the way for the west-side renaissance that includes a new Hippodrome Theater. And that is her legacy, too.

She made Baltimoreans comfortable with the idea of downtown theater - and she made the biggest stars comfortable when they came to town. When Yul Brynner arrived here for The King and I, he found no downtown hotel grand enough for his taste. So Hope and her husband, Bruce, moved out of their Mount Vernon apartment and let Brynner, his wife, his cook, his chauffeur and his dog move in for the run of the show.

She talked for hours with Arthur Miller when the great playwright opened his American Clock remembrance of the Depression. Miller was rewriting almost daily, as he watched early audience response. One day Hope told him her own Depression memories, of living near a railroad track and men who came to her house and were fed by her mother. Miller put the memory into his play.

Visitors to her home remember Hope answering a ringing telephone and blithely declaring, "Hi, Larry." Larry, as in Olivier. She was involved with the Mechanic for 18 years. She took it over when season ticket sales were 3,000 and she built the numbers to 22,000.

"We are superstitious people in the theater," Broadway producer Liz McCann said yesterday. She brought several of her plays here. "We believe that great theaters have spirits. You can sometimes hear the voices of very great actors who have played that theater. This theater has the spirit of Hope Quackenbush. Nothing wrong will ever happen on this stage as long as her spirit keeps watch over it."

But Hope was more than a great lady of the arts. She was a midwife to this city's first great modern rebirth. She helped teach Baltimore to believe in itself again. In a dark time, she lit candles that still brighten the whole town.

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