Cumberland actor ends hiatus, returns to stage with 'Grand Hotel'


"I live in the Grand Hotel," jokes Mark Baker, the Cumberland-born actor who plays the dying bookkeeper in the touring company of "Grand Hotel," currently at the Mechanic Theatre.

The vivacious, curly-haired actor isn't entirely kidding -- because he's constantly on tour, the hotel he's most familiar with is the one on stage.

But there's another reason "Grand Hotel" feels like home; in a sense this tour represents a theatrical homecoming. Four years ago, the 44-year-old Mr. Baker stepped out of the limelight and resettled in Cumberland. He left behind a successful acting career highlighted by the lead role in the 1974 Broadway revival of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," three seasons at the prestigious Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and work under such directors as Harold Prince, Peter Sellars and Ken Russell.

When the tour of "Grand Hotel" came along, he pulled up stakes and sold his Cumberland house. "I decided I'd really give this a chance," he explains. His contract takes him through the show's six-week Japanese engagement, scheduled to conclude in early 1992.

Actually, major life changes are the norm for Mr. Baker; they're part of what he calls the "elasticity of lifestyle," a viewpoint he attributes primarily to the influence of his mother, Sue Warhaft, who recently received an honorary doctorate in philosophy from the Institute of Alternative Medicine of Sri Lanka.

Mr. Baker's interest in performing began with a dance recital at age 4 and persisted until he spent two years preparing for the Lutheran ministry at Wittenberg University. Finding himself more attracted to the stage than the pulpit, he moved to New York and began chalking up professional credits. Besides "Candide" he made two major motion pictures, "Swashbuckler" and "Valentino."

Nonetheless, in the early 1980s he was ready for another major life change, in this case, practicing law. He took a job as a paralegal to get a feel for the profession and soon concluded it was not for him.

In retrospect, Mr. Baker acknowledges that there is an element of theater in both ministry and law. "By being in the theater, I'm avoiding the middle man," he kids.

Plunging back into acting, he worked at the Guthrie, and later in Los Angeles, where he played a brief continuing role as a retarded man on "St. Elsewhere."

But another life change lay ahead. In 1987 Mr. Baker was in Colorado playing a Mexican in "A Romantic Detachment," "a musical that didn't quite go anywhere," as he puts it. "I decided it was time . . . to go back to the mountains and investigate my priorities." Shucking show business, he returned to Cumberland and worked in a custom drapery shop owned by his stepfather, Al Warhaft.

However, he admits, "I couldn't stay away from theater." He started out in community theater, then found himself straying farther afield, teaching at a creative arts high school in Pittsburgh. Before long he was back on the professional stage.

Mr. Baker was doing summer stock in Jennerstown, Pa., when he heard about the chance to audition for the touring production of "Grand Hotel," director Tommy Tune's musical version of the Vicki Baum novel. At the time there was talk of taking over the role on Broadway. But, Mr. Baker says, "I get to create my role on tour. I'd have to re-create it on Broadway. I enjoy the fact that the part is mine in the various cities."

Mr. Baker doesn't know what's ahead after "Grand Hotel." But he makes no secret of the fact that he's enjoying Baltimore. One highlight has been a trip to the grave of Edgar Allan Poe, the subject of a play he co-authored a decade ago with John Waters' late protege, Cookie Muller.

"Life's an exploration," he says. "Baltimore looks better and better to me."

"Grand Hotel" continues at the Mechanic Theatre through March 17; call 625-1400.

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