Pioneering producer reshaped the theater

T. Edward Hambleton 1911 - 2005

December 20, 2005|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Although he was a lifelong Baltimorean, T. Edward Hambleton transformed theater in New York and beyond.

The pioneering producer - who helped found the off-Broadway movement in this country and whose groundbreaking theater helped launch the careers of director Harold Prince, playwright Wendy Wasserstein and actor Meryl Streep - died Saturday at age 94.

"It would be hard to find somebody who has contributed more to the American theater and was so modest about his contribution," said Michael Montel, a former artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre, the landmark New York theater Mr. Hambleton co-founded in 1953.

Not only did the Phoenix help establish theatrical luminaries from playwright Christopher Durang to actor Glenn Close, it created a haven for new plays and shone new light on classics at a time when, as Mr. Hambleton once said, theater "was either Broadway or not in New York."

Four years after the Phoenix opened its doors, Mr. Hambleton and his partner, the late Norris Houghton, broke ground again when the theater became a nonprofit. Prior to that, Mr. Hambleton told The Sun in 1986, "nonprofit only existed as far as hospitals and welfare projects." The theater's new status allowed it to take even more artistic risks.

"T. [as the producer was called] was this guy who was willing to take gambles," said Peter W. Culman, former managing director of Center Stage, where Mr. Hambleton was a board member for almost 40 years. Among the Phoenix productions fondly recalled by Mr. Culman, who served as Mr. Hambleton's apprentice from 1960-1961, was the premiere of the musical Once Upon a Mattress, which starred a young Carol Burnett.

Perpetually enthusiastic, curious and unflappable, the genteel producer dined Friday evening at the Maryland Club on oysters and champagne. His death came the following day, several hours after a CAT scan revealed an esophageal tumor, according to his daughter, Linda Hambleton Panitz.

"Oysters and champagne - Chekhov said it's a good way to die," director Prince commented yesterday, describing Mr. Hambleton's achievements as "huge and lasting."

"He was an articulate, modest, deceptively stubborn doer with high priorities ... and the ability to get things done in a way that wasn't heavy handed," Mr. Prince said.

Indeed, in manner and appearance, the soft-spoken, professorial-looking Mr. Hambleton was far from the archetypal tough-talking, cigar-chomping producer. "One of the sweet things about T. is that the phone would ring and there would be silence and you'd know it was T. because he was so quiet and low-key. You'd babble away, and he'd say, `Thank you.' He just listened, he was a wonderful listener and he got a lot done that way," commented actress Rosemary Harris, who described Mr. Hambleton as "the father figure, the kingpin of us all."

"He always gave me a wonderful sense of security. If T. was on board, nothing could go wrong. He was one of those men who exuded comfort and safety. His shoulders were broad and his back was broad, and he seemed to protect people from the worst storms," said Ms. Harris, who was married to the late director Ellis Rabb when Mr. Rabb's theater, the Association of Producing Artists (APA), joined forces with Mr. Hambleton's Phoenix Theatre in the mid-1960s.

But even before the Phoenix, which closed its doors in 1982, Mr. Hambleton was making theater history. In 1947, he brought German dramatist Bertolt Brecht to this country for the American premiere of Galileo, starring Charles Laughton, in Los Angeles.

The producer accompanied Mr. Brecht when the playwright was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Mrs. Panitz said, as her father would tell it, "Right after that [Brecht] went to the airport and left and never came back."

The scion of three generations of Baltimore bankers, Mr. Hambleton's life frequently was touched by tragedy. His father died when Mr. Hambleton was 19. In 1947, his first wife, Caroline Hoysradt, died of polio; she was pregnant at the time. His oldest child, Anne Brooks Crawford Hambleton, who worked at the Phoenix, was killed in a car accident at age 24.

"He always used to say, `Rise above it and forge ahead,' no matter what the problem was," Mrs. Panitz said.

When Mr. Hambleton entered Yale University in 1930, he planned to become an industrial chemist. But his interest in theater was kindled when he began acting in college productions.

He subsequently ran a Rhode Island theater with one of his Yale instructors for three seasons. In 1937, he began producing plays on Broadway, but with little success. Hambleton served in Naval intelligence during World War II.

After the war, he spent several years with New York's Experimental Theatre before co-founding the Phoenix, whose landmark first season (1953-1954) began with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starring in a comedy called Madam, Will You Walk? and concluded with The Sea Gull starring Montgomery Clift in his final stage appearance.

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