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Gordon Becker, theater arts philanthropist who decked the malls during the holidays, dies

Gordon Becker, center, was founder and chairman of the Becker Group. He's pictured here in January 2007 with Glenn Tilley, left, president and CEO of the Becker Group, and Paul Dykstra, right, CEO of VIAD Corp. 2007
Gordon Becker, center, was founder and chairman of the Becker Group. He's pictured here in January 2007 with Glenn Tilley, left, president and CEO of the Becker Group, and Paul Dykstra, right, CEO of VIAD Corp. 2007 (LLOYD FOX / Baltimore Sun)

Gordon Becker, who created a business that decorated scores of malls for the holidays and who was a leader on the early boards of Center Stage and Everyman theaters, died of cancer June 4 at his Towson home. He was 87.

“Making reindeer fly” became his business’ tag line for the faux holly and plaster North Pole props he supplied that evolved into elaborate holiday decorations.

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“Gordon was a showman,” said Vincent M. Lancisi, founder of Everyman Theatre. “Going for a tour of his showroom was like going behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz.”

Mr. Becker told a Sun reporter in the late 1940s that he would wear a red Santa suit and sing and tell stories to drum up business at a cousin’s Belair Road store.

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He went on to graduate from Forest Park High School and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he was interested in theater and dramatics.

Gordon Becker's career took off in 1974 when he won an exclusive license to use Walt Disney characters in his displays.
Gordon Becker's career took off in 1974 when he won an exclusive license to use Walt Disney characters in his displays. (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

While a University of Maryland sophomore, and with a business partner, Stanley Frank, he started a Santa School, using his parents’ Forest Park house as headquarters.

“It was always funny that my father, despite being Jewish, ran a Christmas business,” said his son, Douglas, founder of Laureate Education. “While the irony was not lost on him, he loved the happiness and spirit of the season.”

The father founded what became the Becker Group, a business that started on Seven Mile Lane in Pikesville.

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“As a child, my brother and I used to play in the warehouse. It was like a treasure hunt,” said his son, Douglas Becker. “We found giant snow-making machines, searchlights and Bugs Bunny costumes.”

The firm also trimmed malls for springtime and Easter. A 1998 Sun story described the firm as “Part design house, part marketing firm, part theatrical set producer, it’s a business like few others — the world’s biggest designer of holiday decor for shopping malls.”

Mr. Becker initially worked with department stores such as the old Hochschild Kohn and Hutzler’s.

Louise Miller, Gordon Becker and Nan Rosenthal attended the House of Ruth's Crabaret at Gertrude's in 2010. Colby Ware/For The Baltimore Sun
Louise Miller, Gordon Becker and Nan Rosenthal attended the House of Ruth's Crabaret at Gertrude's in 2010. Colby Ware/For The Baltimore Sun (BALTIMORE SUN)

“Before long, merchants’ associations and store owners were asking for decorations, lights or a tree, to come with the Santas,” The Sun’s account.

The Becker Group later stopped training and supplying Santas. It designed and manufactured artificial trees, wreaths, bells, banners and lights. It also made Santa thrones and Santa houses.

Up through the 1960s, Mr. Becker said his business was steady but did not grow much.

“In 1974, he was able to win the exclusive license to use Walt Disney characters in his displays,” a Sun story said.

“‘I feel like the first 30 years of my career I was just getting ready, because everything significant has happened in the last five years,’ since he began taking on corporate accounts,” he said in a 1990 Sun story.

Gordon Becker, right, and his wife Marsha Perry Becker attended the House of Ruth Crabaret gala in 2009. Colby Ware/For The Baltimore Sun
Gordon Becker, right, and his wife Marsha Perry Becker attended the House of Ruth Crabaret gala in 2009. Colby Ware/For The Baltimore Sun (COLBY WARE / BALTIMORE SUN)

Mr. Becker worked from a headquarters at Cathedral and Read streets in Mount Vernon. He led prospective customers through showrooms of oversize props: glass beads, huge bows, gift-wrapped boxes, flying angels, red and gold banners, wooden soldiers, and a toy workshop with animated elves at work.

“I never get tired of this stuff,” he said. “It’s never lost its magic for me.”

He oversaw a team of 100 salespeople, designers and production specialists, and art and administrative employees who worked with mall managers to design and produce displays and oversee initial installation.

Many of the sets and animated elves and reindeer were manufactured in-house, either at Baltimore warehouses or at several studios around the country.

“I don’t draw. I don’t paint. I don’t drive the trucks,” he said. “But if something is wrong, clients know they can call me. Everything’s in the details.”

He had a manufacturing facility in Charlotte, North Carolina. His artists produced characters from Sesame Street, Walt Disney, the Peanuts kids and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, among others.

In 2008, the Becker Group created a 70-foot Christmas tree for a mall in Dubai.

Building a holiday display is similar to designing a set for a play, Mr. Becker said in a Sun interview.

“It has to look like the Rock of Gibraltar but has to be light enough so that one or two people can move it,” he said.

Mr. Becker was an early board president of Center Stage. He was also part of the effort that recruited Peter Culman to moved to Baltimore and run the playhouse. He also secured a Ford Foundation grant for the theater company.

“My father was more than a showman,” said his son, Douglas. “He was an incredibly generous person who could not walk past a homeless person without trying to help.”

Mr. Becker was an arts philanthropist and worked over the years to help stabilize the finances of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He once, on the strength of personal persuasive powers, got boxing legend Muhammad Ali to come to Baltimore for a fundraiser for disadvantaged students.

“In our family, that event became a legend because of my father’s boldness and perseverance in tracking down Muhammad Ali and convincing him to do this,” said his son, Douglas.

Others recalled Mr. Becker’s ability to envision and achieve.

“Gordon Becker put us on the map. ... He dreamed big and he created confidence in people,” said Vincent M. Lancisi, founder of Everyman. “He was the board president when we moved to Charles Street. It was a huge risk to commit to a full season of plays.”

In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of nearly 35 years, Marsha Perry Becker, a Towson University adjunct professor; two other sons, Eric Becker of Jupiter, Florida, and Geoffrey Sanders of Los Angeles; a daughter Amy Sanders of Boston; a brother, Lawrence Becker of Scottsdale, Arizona; and four grandchildren.

A memorial gathering will take place at a later date.

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