Harry G. 'Gordon' Porterfield, a Baltimore teacher, actor, playwright, poet and novelist, dies

Gordon Porterfield began as an actor and moved on to write plays.
Gordon Porterfield began as an actor and moved on to write plays. (Handout / HANDOUT)

Harry G. “Gordon” Porterfield, a Baltimore public schools teacher, actor, playwright, poet and novelist, died May 17 from cancer at his Hamilton home. He was 82.

“Gordon was an incredibly bright man who was well-read and always interested in what you were doing and your point of view. He was a very giving person,” said Steve Yeager of Canton, an independent filmmaker and an adjunct professor in the theater department at Towson University. “And he could write anything.”


Harry Gordon Porterfield — he never used his first name — was the son of Harry G. Porterfield, a Bethlehem Steel Co. steelworker, and his wife, Katherine L. Porterfield, a secretary. He was born in Baltimore and raised in Edmondson Village.

Mr. Porterfield was a 1956 graduate of Loyola High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1960 from what is now Loyola University Maryland. He received a master’s degree from Towson University and a second master’s degree in writing from the Johns Hopkins University.

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During Mr. Porterfield’s 40-year career in city public schools, he was on the faculty of Chinquapin and Hamilton elementary schools, and Canton Middle and Roland Park Elementary-Middle School, where he taught English and drama.

“At Chinquapin, he produced an amazing drama curriculum, putting on plays such as ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” said his son, Matthew Alan Porterfield, a Charles Village resident who is a lecturer in undergraduate film and media studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

“At Canton, there was no facility to support drama, so Gordon became an essential developer of teacher talent, a creator of good wealth, a fundraising guru, leader of the social improvement team, and overall handyman and personal adviser,” his son said.

Mr. Porterfield retired from teaching in 2004, but continued to instruct teachers in the master’s degree program at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.


In 1968, Ellen Stewart, founder of New York City’s Cafe La MaMa, opened the Corner Theater Experimental Theater Club in the 800 block of N. Howard St. with Leslie Paul Lyons, a local producer, director and actor.

Corner Theater was a local version of Ms. Stewart’s La MaMa whose focus was ensemble experimental theater and staging of new plays, and where Mr. Porterfield acted and became its key playwright.

“Gordon was electrifying when acting, and he took no hostages,” Mr. Yeager said. “He had a marvelous stage presence, but Corner theater gave him the outlet to become a playwright.

“The were no boundaries at Corner Theater, and he took full advantage of that, and his plays were always outrageous. No one has written plays like Gordon. He was Corner Theater.”

In 1968, “Ratsfeet,” the first of his many plays staged at the theater, consisted of two playlets, “Authors,” and “The Earth is Dead,” which led The Baltimore Sun’s drama critic, R.H. Gardner, to write in a review that his “abilities went beyond that of acting,” but taking exception to his overuse of profanity in the two one-act plays.

“But his enthusiasm four four-letter words results in a dialogue so pointedly and monotonously obscene that the nobility of his intentions tend to disappear in a tide of sensationalism” Mr. Gardner observed. “Surely, there must be some way to criticize the morbid vulgarity of society without becoming morbidly vulgar oneself.”

Other plays in Mr. Porterfield’s repertoire included “Gnomes” and “I And Silence Some Strange Race,” as well as “Tigers,” an original teleplay.

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In 1970, Corner Theater staged his “whatisoneholycatholicapostalicbrownandstinksuptheuniverse” --- whose title is written in the fashion of E.E. Cummings’ poetry.

Once again writing in The Sun, Mr. Gardner described Mr. Porterfield’s play as “a sort of take-off on ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ though it contains elements of ‘King Lear,’ ‘Oedipus Rex,’ the Book of Job and the kind of poetry one sees on the walls of bus-station restrooms.”

He added: “I had hoped that Mr. Porterfield had got over his love of four-letter words — which, like most phenomena, tend to lose their effectiveness with repetition — because he has undeniable talent, for comic invention if not necessarily for playwriting.”

Mr. Gardner ended his review with the admonition. “As for Mr. Porterfield, I wish he would do me and himself a favor and, in his next creation, limit himself to expletives no stronger than ‘shucks.’ ”

His son in an email wrote what many considered “whatisoneholycatholicapostanlicbrownandstinksuptheuniverse” his father’s defining work for that time, “a scatological romp down the Yellow Brick Road.”

In 1973, the theater produced “Wolves,” a series of one-act plays, and “Chancre, “a hallucinatory tour de force,” his son wrote, which was Mr. Porterfield’s final offering at Corner Theater.

In 1987, Fells Point Theatre and Corner Theater merged.

In 1999, Mr. Porterfield emerged from theatrical retirement when his critically acclaimed play, “Snow,” was performed at Fells Point Corner Theater. It was selected best play and best production that year by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

Sun theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck wrote that “Snow” was “a tender, albeit graphic, romance between two twentysomething folks who seem to have little in common.”

Ms. Rouscuk went on to say that Mr. Porterfield was “skilled at writing conversation and developing characters.”

“Gordon always had interesting ideas to help you with your work,” Mr. Yeager said. “he was really approachable, charismatic and when you were with him, you felt his presence,” Mr. Yeager said.

“Without Gordon, I would never have become a filmmaker and director,” said Mr. Yeager, whose 1998 film “Divine Trash,” which studied the global underground film movement, won the grand prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival that year.

A sequel, “In Bad Taste,” a documentary on John Waters’ career after “Pink Flamingos,” aired in 2000.

In 1987, Mr. Porterfield wrote “The Yippie Book,” “which used techniques of drama to teach children how to write,” his son said.

“I visited him last month, and he was still full of ideas about plays and things he knew he’d never get done,” Mr. Yeager said. “He still had lots of energy.”

A memorial gathering and remembrance service will be held at 11 a.m. June 15 at Le Mondo Theatre, 406 N. Howard Street, Baltimore.

In addition to his son, he is survived by another son, Daniel R. Porterfield of Arlington, Va.; a daughter, Katherine “Kate” Porterfield of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a sister, Lois Elise Evans of Maryland; and six grandchildren. Marriages to the former Anne Maroney and Victoria Collins ended in divorce.

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