Toby Orenstein opened her namesake dinner theater in 1979.
Toby Orenstein opened her namesake dinner theater in 1979. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Toby Orenstein has been a fixture in Howard County since Columbia’s founder, James W. Rouse, asked her to start a theater school in 1972, which now operates as the nonprofit Columbia Center of Theatrical Arts. The Bronx native opened her dinner theater in 1979.

The county’s grande dame of the stage, who has lived in Columbia with husband Hal Orenstein for nearly 40 years, shares some little-known tidbits about her life.


1. She began directing at 16.

Orenstein directed a summer children’s theater camp in the Catskill Mountains. “I answered an ad in The New York Times and fibbed about my age to get the job,” she says.

2. She belonged to a girls-only club.

Orenstein and her neighborhood gal-pals formed a “gang” in the sixth grade, complete with light-blue corduroy jackets emblazoned with “The Magnets” on the front and “WA” on the sleeve for “We Attract.” Though she attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, they stuck together and still hold reunions.

3. Eleanor Roosevelt was an early mentor.

As a young arts educator, Orenstein was inspired by her advocacy work for the first lady, who chose her and 11 others to run an experimental program to help underprivileged and disaffected Harlem youth to learn through the arts.

4. She’s a reformed collector.

A lifetime of amassing letters, photographs and newspaper clippings has led to a new obsession. Orenstein rises at 5 a.m. daily to spend two hours de-cluttering her home, reliving precious memories as she chucks some items and tucks others into a “savings box.” She’s also “helping” Hal reduce his piles of paper.

5. She’s not retiring, but….

Orenstein says a two-week bout with the flu forced her to miss the opening night of “Young Frankenstein” in January – her first-ever absence from a Toby’s production – and reaffirmed her decision in 2017 to name associate producer Mark Minnick as her successor “for his sense of humor and eye for talent.”

From the time the readers’ poll launches in August to the issue’s delivery in December, businesses, nonprofits and readers alike are abuzz in anticipation of who might take home the coveted Best of Howard County title.