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Sally Harris, drama department pioneer at Stevenson University, dies

Sally Harris was a performer from the age of 12.
Sally Harris was a performer from the age of 12. (Caitlin Faw/Baltimore Sun)

Sally Harris, retired chair of what is now Stevenson University’s Communication Arts Division and a pioneer in the school’s drama department, died May 5 at the Springwell Senior Living Community in Mount Washington. The longtime Bolton Hill resident was 93.

Because of religious reasons, the family gave no cause of death.

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Born in New York City, she was the daughter of Harry Pomeran, a fur coat designer, and his wife, Libby Solomon.

As a child, she displayed a flair for performing and won an amateur Shirley Temple contest singing, “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” At 12, her mother paid 10 cents for her to take an acting class in Far Rockaway. She soon had a lifelong interest in performing.

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In 1942 her parents purchased the former Mott Estate in Bellport on Long Island and made it into The Gateway, a resort for fellow Christian Scientists.

“In the summer, Sally and her brother David and sister Ruthie would perform for the resort guests,” said her daughter, Laurel Harris Durenberger of Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

She earned a degree in art and dance at Principia College in Illinois, where she befriended actors Robert Duvall and Robert Morse.

She received a master’s degree from Antioch-Putney Graduate School of Education and was later head of theater and folk dance at Putney. Her graduate thesis production was “The Little Prince.” She received a letter of commendation from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

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She moved to New York City and took classes at the Feagin School of Dramatic Art and the Arnold Modeling Academy.

She worked off-Broadway, toured with the Children’s World Theatre Company with Jason Robards, and was a member of the Houston Playhouse Theatre.

She persuaded family and friends to transform an old barn on her parents’ Gateway property into an arena-style performance space with the haylofts as balconies. In 1950 the family opened the Gateway Playhouse Barn Theatre and invited college students and New York friends to perform. The nonprofit theater remains in business and is owned by members of her family.

“Christian Science led and inspired my mother throughout her life,” said another daughter, Holly Harris of Baltimore. “She met Les Harris, an actor, dancer and artist at church and invited him to take part in Gateway. There they fell in love.”

They later lived in Albany, New York, where he taught at the Albany Academy.

She, her husband and young family moved to Baltimore, where he had been born. They bought an old Park Avenue house in Bolton Hill in 1962, which they decorated and opened for neighborhood tours. She also hosted faculty meetings there and was considered an excellent cook.

“They transformed it into a magical palace filled with music, art and love,” said her daughter.

She worked with the Children’s Theatre Association and taught speech and theater at the Samuel Ready School and at the Park School’s summer program.

She joined the faculty of what was then Villa Julie College, now Stevenson University, and founded the Inscape Theatre and became chair of its Communication Arts Department.

“My mother was hired to teach drama in what was then a two-year secretarial school,” Ms. Durenberger said. “She wanted to bring arts into the lives of her students and set up a temporary theater in the nunnery at the school. She later took over the top of the library for that theater.”

Chris Roberts, a former student who followed her on the faculty, said: “She was one of the most loving women I’ve ever met. As the school, and later university grew, so did she. She taught to the student. She could get performances out of people you thought did not have any talent.”

She also said, “Sally could make a theater out of a bush. She had a vision, a perspicacity and a love of the world. I wondered where she got her energy.“

A 1997 Sun article said she also combined theater with a video studies program.

“Combining theater with the video program teaches students teamwork — to see the big picture and how things are staged,” she said. “The liberal arts courses help us to train thinkers.”

She also worked closely with her husband, who created the Amaranthine Museum in an office building in Woodberry’s old Poole and Hunt Foundry. He filled that administration building with his canvases and multimedia installations.

After her husband’s death in 2008, Mrs. Harris took over running the museum and became the catalyst for its relocation on the Clipper Mill property.

She was a member of the Mother Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston. She also attended the Baltimore First Church of Christ, Scientist on University Parkway.

Plans for a celebration of life in August are incomplete.

In addition to her daughters, survivors include another daughter, Heather Harris of York, Pennsylvania; a brother, David Sheldon of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.

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