Hope Quackenbush, who announced her retirement as managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts this week, will go down in local history as the woman who brought Broadway to Baltimore. When Ms. Quackenbush came to the struggling Morris Mechanic Theater 15 years ago, big-time drama was practically dead in this town. Under her leadership, the BCPA built a subscription base that has exceeded 20,000 in recent years and garnered sales of more than $9 million.
The most remarkable aspect of this achievement is that Ms. Quackenbush pulled it off almost single-handedly. She was hired in 1976 as part of the city's efforts to put the Mechanic back on its feet after two failed attempts by private managements. For a few years she worked with a New York booking agent, from whom she learned the ins and outs of the business. Then she started booking shows herself, relying on her own instincts for what Baltimore audiences wanted. Soon, local theater was a roaring success and Baltimore the envy of other cities.
"Baltimore was never thought of as a very good town to play," Ms. Quackenbush recalled recently. "We offered the producers what we had -- a good working atmosphere, a quality stage crew, good musicians and a good, small office staff. They bought it and wound up loving to play Baltimore."
Ms. Quackenbush's tenure has been one of the legacies of the "do it now" enthusiasm of the early years of the administration of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer. She began her civic work in 1970 as an organizer and founder of the Baltimore City Fair. When she launched the local theater revival in 1976, Mayor Schaefer was insisting that anything was possible.
She helped prove him right, at least as far as downtown theater went. As The Evening Sun's Jaques Kelly wrote in an appreciation of her accomplishment: "She lured people downtown who otherwise might have stayed home in Pikesville or Dundalk. She made the lights dazzle. She brought us laughter, music and tears. And a few bombs, too."
Most of all she helped bring new life and hope to a city that badly needed it.