Musical theater productions once thrived in this Charles Village alleyway

May 17, 2008|By Jacques Kelly

An unassuming little building in an alley just off Charles and 22nd streets has long piqued my curiosity. Brittle 1930s play programs revealed it had been a legitimate community theater, but the rest of its tale remained cloudy.

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon newspaper accounts that shed light on the man behind its run. His name was Thomas Morris Cushing, who founded the Play-Arts Guild in 1924 and operated it until 1942, when World War II seems to have brought down the curtain on the guild. Cushing died at age 58 in 1954 at Union Memorial Hospital.

His obituary indicated why the Play-Arts Guild is not better known. The paper said of Cushing: "A man who guarded his privacy, he cut the relationship with his associates in the theater when he walked out the door, and to his fellow players he was something of a man of mystery."

A Baltimore native, Cushing was a 1917 Johns Hopkins graduate and lived at Graceleigh, the family home in Woodbrook. He also became The Sun's drama critic in the 1920s, but gave up the job to run Play-Arts in what I guess was a brick stable near the old Goucher College campus.

He lived with his brother, Joseph Wiley Cushing, who also worked in local theater and helped stage shows at Friends and Roland Park Country schools.

The Play-Arts Guild, which opened in the 150-seat playhouse in late 1925, hit its stride when its troupe started producing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. They once took a production of Patience to New York, where the critics promptly slaughtered them.

The group also had a lot of fun doing an annual spoof revue, The Charles Street Follies, with jazzy 1920s numbers such as "Green Spring Strut" and the "Blue Bus Blues," a number that parodied the doubling of the 5-cent fare on double-decker buses that once ran on Charles Street. One character was named Mrs. Baurenberger, a burlesque of civic gadfly Marie Bauernschmidt. Another was Ogden Sash, meant to be Ogden Nash, the comic poet who lived in Guilford.

An Evening Sun critic explained that the Follies promoted "wit and humor at the often well deserved expense of this smug and comical city of ours."

The Play-Arts Guild ran in competition with the Vagabonds, Baltimore's other community theater. As to big names, Mildred Natwick once appeared at the Play-Arts and Peabody-trained Virginia Fox was in a company of the operetta Rose-Marie. Perhaps its greatest graduate was set designer Isaac Benesch, who worked for decades on Broadway as a much-respected designer and technical adviser.

Thomas Cushing clearly loved lush, old-fashioned musical pieces. Shortly before he died, he wrote an essay for this paper and heaped praise on the operettas of pre-World War I. He was not much impressed by "what passes for terpsichorean achievement in these days of Oklahoma and Kiss Me Kate."

In a sense, both Cushing brothers remained in the neighborhood. They rest today a half-mile to the southeast in Green Mount Cemetery. Their little theater remains open as a church, the Believers Chapel.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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