Phyllis M. Bagwell, 91, was a theater institution


Theatergoers knew the woman in the starched gray uniform next to the orchestra as "Miss Phyllis." A Baltimore institution, she ushered them to their seats and chatted with them at intermission at the Mechanic Theatre and elsewhere for almost a half-century.

Phyllis M. Bagwell, who rarely missed an opening night, became Baltimore's scrapbook, carrying memories of hundreds of actors and shows that had passed through the city since 1944.

When she died Wednesday of heart failure at age 91 at Good Samaritan Nursing Center in Baltimore, she took those memories with her.

Left behind in a large desk in her West Baltimore living room was a drawer stuffed with playbills and autographs, too full to close. Judy Garland. Betty Grable. Katharine Hepburn. Duke Ellington.

"She would come back to the house and tell you about every play she saw and the quirks of the stars," said her daughter, Sarah E. Bell of Baltimore. "To the very end, she always talked about the theater."

She always called shows "beautiful," a show-biz term she picked up from actors backstage.

Mrs. Bagwell was born Phyllis Carson, the fourth of seven children on a farm outside Rutherfordton, N.C. She was so thin and pale for the first 10 years of her life that the family doctor told her parents she wouldn't live past age 17.

Instead she thrived and, in 1928, at age 20, followed her elder sister to Baltimore, where she took a job cleaning the house of a wealthy doctor on North Calvert Street. There, she met her future husband, Isaac, the doctor's chauffeur. They were married in 1931. He died in 1977.

She worked odd nights when small theaters need help, and saved as much as she could to buy tickets to shows.

In 1944, she heard of an opening at Keith's Theater on Lexington Street and jumped at the chance. A few months after getting the job, management entrusted her to escort stars around the theater. Her first big star: Charlton Heston.

Still, because of Jim Crow restrictions, the closest she could get to watching performances at Keith's was from the upstairs balcony -- and only if it was empty.

As times changed, Mrs. Bagwell moved to other theaters: the Century, the Regent, the Stanley, the Charles. She worked behind the candy stand, in the coat check room, as an usher.

In her West Baltimore house near Coppin State College, Mrs. Bagwell was known as much for her huge dinners as for her stories about the theater. She loved to cook deep-dish apple pie and sweet potato pudding.

In 1967, the night the Mechanic opened with "Hello, Dolly!" she was hired as the first official hostess. As years turned to decades, she became known as "The First Lady of the Mechanic."

When she retired at age 81, she couldn't leave the theater behind. Ms. Bell said her mother would wait by the mailbox for her copy of Baltimore magazine, to flip the pages to the theater section to see who was playing. She never forgot a name.

In 1984, Lena Horne performed "The Lady and Her Music" at the Mechanic. When she was through, Mrs. Bagwell reminded her they had met before, in 1940 when Ms. Horne took the stage with Charlie Barnet at the Royal Theatre.

Ms. Bell said she waited in the lobby for more than an hour while the two women talked.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at Unity United Methodist Church at Stricker Street and Edmondson Avenue.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Bagwell is survived by a son, Donald W. Bagwell of Nashua, N.H.; seven grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-granddaughter.

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