'Grand Hotel' actor back home again


Nearly 30 years ago, a car from Cumberland stopped at Ford's Theatre on Fayette Street. The occupants got out and took their seats, where the popular French comedy revue, "La Plume de Ma Tante," was playing.

The lights went down in that ancient playhouse; the orchestra struck up. A dazzled 16 year-old from Allegany High School watched star Liliane Montevecchi perform on the stage. It was a revelation.

The stage-struck teen-ager was Mark Baker, who today is one of the leads in "Grand Hotel," the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre's current attraction. His co-star is Liliane Montevecchi, who headed that "La Plume" cast at Ford's in 1962.

"Liliane is as great to me today as the first time I saw her on stage. That was one wonderful day -- my first trip to the theater. We went to Haussner's afterward," said Baker, whose family used to make the long trip in the family car over the mountains to see theater here. "People in Cumberland depend upon Baltimore for a certain urban excitement," he said.

Baker, 44, has the choice role of Otto Kringelein in director Tommy Tune's stylish musical about a day and a night in the life of a Berlin hostelry. It is his first time on the stage of the Mechanic, a theater he got to know after the old Ford's was demolished.

The national tour of "Grand Hotel" has trouped from Cleveland to Miami, but Baker's voice rises with enthusiasm to describe the cast's treatment in Baltimore by the Mechanic's managing director, Hope Quackenbush. "Her reputation in New York precedes her. She has this zest for theatrical art that is unflappable. Yet she keeps a low profile."

He used an expression of his own to characterize Baltimore's first lady of the stage: "she's not selfish with the blintzes."

Baker's mother and stepfather, Sue and Al, still live in Cumberland, where they operate a well-known drapery business, Warhaft's, on Baltimore Street. The family remains close -- next week his mother is to arrive here to spend a week.

Baker uses the term "rural lad" to describe himself. Life in Cumberland is a good time, he says. People there like the status quo -- "things are good they way they are. We don't have to bound ahead or change things."

After high school graduation, Baker went off to Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, but changed his plans. He decided to pursue the Lutheran ministry. After a period of religious study, he changed his plans again and left for New York and the life of an actor. He picked up a Tony Award nomination in 1972 for his performance of the title role in Harold Prince's production of "Candide." He worked with Margaret Hamilton, of "Wizard of Oz" Wicked Witch fame, and with Vivian Vance, of "I Love Lucy" legend.

Then, in the 1980s, he returned to Cumberland, the drapery business and local theater in the Alleghenies.

"One day in Manhattan I decided to get on the Amtrak and go find the mountains again. I find them restful. I stayed there five years," he said.

Then, on a fateful day, his agent told him he had an audition with Tommy Tune. Today, his name is above the title.

But before he went on stage, Tune was trying to figure out what kind of haircut Baker needed. "I went back to Cumberland and got a $4, terribly asymmetrical haircut, from the local barber. I went back to New York and Tommy yelled, 'That's it. Don't change a hair.' "

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