H. E. Denmark Jr., an Arena Players founder


Harvey E. Denmark Jr., who helped found the Arena Players theater group and acted with several local theatrical troupes, died Friday of heart failure at Maryland General Hospital. He was 80.

Formerly a resident of Memorial Apartments, he had lived for the last several months in the Sandtown-Winchester Nursing Home.

By day, Mr. Denmark was a supervisor in the investigative division of the Social Security Administration where he had been employed from 1946 to until his retirement in 1982. By night, he acted on local television and at Center Stage, the Spotlighters and the Arena Players.

In 1953, Mr. Denmark and nine other blacks -- frozen out of local theater groups -- in 1953 helped the late Sam H. Wilson Jr. establish the Arena Players at Coppin State College.

Arena Players showcases the works of black playwrights and is the country's oldest, continuously operating black theater group.

After moving several times, the group settled into a building at 406 Orchard St., which it bought in 1969.

Mr. Denmark "was an extraordinary talent," said Catherine Orange, Arena Players director of youth theater.

"One of his great roles was that of Gramps in 'On Borrowed Time,' but everything he did was outstanding. His stage portrayals and the characters he played were unbelievable. He had such energy and would never settle for a second-rate performance," Ms. Orange said.

Peter W. Culman, managing director of Center Stage, described Mr. Denmark as "a good actor and a lovely guy.

"He was one of those early on who realized that theater could transcend racial division and provide common ground. He had a quality of goodness about him and certainly could hold his own on stage," Mr. Culman said.

"I always thought of him as a black Cary Grant," said a cousin, Charlotte E. Dudley of Baltimore. "He was very suave and debonair."

Mr. Denmark, who acted well into his 70s, preferred Shakespearean roles but had parts in such classics as "Bus Stop" and "Dial M for Murder." During the 1970s, he played the judge on WJZ-TV's "Courtroom 13," which dramatized actual legal cases. He also worked in several Hollywood films that were made in Baltimore, including "And Justice for All," in which he portrayed a drunk who was locked in a cell with actor Al Pacino's character.

Mr. Denmark was born and raised in Baltimore. He was a 1932 graduate of Douglass High School, where he excelled in drama, and attended then-Morgan State College.

During the late 1930s, he had minor roles on Broadway.

He was an Army clerk during World War II and was discharged with the rank of corporal in 1946. His decorations included the Good Conduct Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the American Theater Ribbon.

Services were to be held at noon today at Lewis T. Gwynn Funeral Home, 4517 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore.

Other survivors include special friends Julia Purnell, Stacey Purnell and Derrick Hewlett, all of Baltimore.

Memorial donations may be made to Arena Players Inc., 801 McCulloh St., Baltimore 21201.

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