Merrell H. Hambleton, fundraiser who helped run Phoenix Theatre, dies

Merrell H. Hambleton, a fundraiser who assisted her husband, producer T. Edward Hambleton, in the operation of his Phoenix Theater in New York, died Saturday at her home in the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville of complications from a fall.

She was 94.


The daughter of Albert Hopkins, an insurance executive, and Nettie Beall, a homemaker, Merrell Hopkins was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., and raised in Pelham Manor, N.Y.

She was a graduate of Warrenton Country School in Warrenton, Va., and spent summers at the Perry Mansfield Camp in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where her mother ran an adult camp and made costumes for its theater school.


An accomplished horsewoman, she later became a counselor and instructor.

"However, at 17, love lured me into the theater. I fell madly in love with the technician, an older man of 27 or so, and the shape of my future was set," Mrs. Hambleton recalled in an unpublished memoir. "From then on I was just as theater-mad as I had been horse-mad."

Mrs. Hambleton learned to build sets and fabricate lighting equipment. "[I] lived, ate and slept theater," she recalled. She also studied dance under Agnes De Mille, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon, a young Mexican painter.

Though she had been accepted at Vassar College in New York, a love of the American West lured Mrs. Hambleton to study theater at the University of Arizona.

"The whole period in the West, during which I had a chance to see much of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, left a deep imprint on my life," she wrote. "My love of the outdoors and the great sweep and grandeur of the Western landscape was the beginning of my love of nature."

After two years, she transferred to Bennington College in Vermont to study with Arch Lauterer, a noted set and lighting designer. She called him "another great impact on my life."

She graduated from Bennington in 1943, then enrolled at Smith College, where she earned a master's degree in 1945..

In 1947, she went to New York City to try and break into theater, but soon discovered "women technicians were persona non grata," she wrote.


She learned how to type and take shorthand and went to work for Stage for Action, an organization that used live theater to dramatize the plight of the working man and highlight social justice.

In 1947, she took a job with the American National Theatre and Academy, where she ran the switchboard, did secretarial work, and did play reading for its Experimental Theatre, which produced plays using American directors and actors.

While working at ANTA she met a 37-year-old Baltimore widower, T. Edward Hambleton, who had started producing plays on Broadway in 1937.

In 1948, she went to work for Mr. Hambleton — known to friends and colleagues simply as "T" — who at the time was taking "Ballet Ballads" to Broadway. "I did everything including the payroll," she wrote.

Lunching with his partner, Alfred Stern, the conversation often turned to finding a wife for the widower. One day she said to Mr. Stern, "I've found a wife for 'T.'" When he asked who, she replied: "Me."

The couple wed in 1949.


"His first wife — my mother, Caroline Hoysradt — had died of polio, leaving him with three young daughters," said Linda Hambleton Panitz, Mrs. Hambleton's stepdaughter and a resident of Roland Park.

"I thought she was either a saint or crazy," said Ms. Panitz of her stepmother with a laugh. "She really was quite remarkable."

The couple went on to have three additional children, Ms. Panitz said. She said meals at their home were always rushed because of a waiting theater curtain.

Mr. Hambleton helped establish the off-Broadway movement when he and another partner, Norris Houghton, co-founded the nonprofit Phoenix Theatre in 1953.

The theater helped establish the careers of director Hal Prince, playwrights Wendy Wasserstein and Christopher Durang, and actors including Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Carol Burnett, Rosemary Harris and Sigourney Weaver.

Mrs. Hambleton's role at the Phoenix was handling subscriptions and fundraising. She later worked in the theater's development office and chaired its auxiliary board.


"They hired countless actors and directors who had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the Joseph McCarthy era and came to New York looking for work, including Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy," said a granddaughter, Anne Hambleton Watts, of Cambridge.

The couple lived on East 86th Street in Manhattan and spent weekends at a 50-acre estate in Timonium that had been owned originally by Mr. Hambleton's great-grandfather. They later resided there in retirement before moving to Broadmead in 2000.

"It was hectic. They lived on the New Jersey Turnpike with kids and dogs jammed in the car. She kept everyone calm by playing classical music on the car radio," Ms. Watts said.

"My parents always had an open-door policy. You never could tell who was coming. There was always lots of good food and conversation in the library," Ms. Panitz said.

The Phoenix Theatre closed in 1982. Mr. Hambleton died in 2005.

Ms. Watts recently attended a lecture sponsored by The New York Times that featured Ms. Streep.


"I went up to her and said I was T. Edward Hambleton's granddaughter, and she gushed, 'Of course, I remember T and Merrell.' She had just graduated from Yale when she came to The Phoenix, and they helped launch her career. It was obvious she had not forgotten where she came from."

Mrs. Hambleton chaired the board of directors at Bennington College and a committee that selected the architect for its Performing Arts and Visual Arts buildings.

She was a communicant of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson, where she had been president of Episcopal Church Women.

She enjoyed traveling to Europe and spending time on a canal boat jointly owned with three other couples. She also liked vacationing in Fenwick, Conn., on Long Island Sound.

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She liked to read, and also painted and stenciled early American trays and tole ware.

In addition to attending the theater, she was an avid bird watcher and conservationist. She was a member of the National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Association, Sierra Club and the Cosmopolitan Club.


"She had great humility and never, ever tooted her own horn even though she had played a key role at the Phoenix," Ms. Panitz said. "She was a superior woman and quite feisty. She was a feminist and liberal politically.

"She was a very strong woman in a very understated way," she said. "Daddy would have been lost without her."

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete.

In addition to Ms. Panitz and Ms. Watts, she is survived by sons Mark Hopkins Hambleton of Timonium and T. Edward Hambleton of Fairfax, Va.; another stepdaughter, Susan Hambleton of New York City; seven other grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. A daughter, Mary Hambleton died in 2009; and Anne Hambleton, a stepdaughter, died in 1962.