Frankie Hewitt, Instrumental in Relighting Ford's Theatre for Shows, Dead at 71

Obituaries   Frankie Hewitt, Instrumental in Relighting Ford's Theatre for Shows, Dead at 71 Frankie Hewitt, the arts and humanities advocate instrumental in making the legendary Ford's Theatre a living, working, producing venue, died Feb. 28 after a battle with cancer, the Washington, DC theatre announced.

Mrs. Hewitt died at her home in Kensington, MD. She was 71 years old. Her title at the refurbished playhouse where Abraham Lincoln was shot was "founder and producing artistic director" of Ford's Theatre Society, which ran the venue.

For more than three decades, Mrs. Hewitt had been "the driving force behind Ford's Theatre, first lobbying single handedly to restore the structure as a working theatre and museum, then shaping the theatre's future by raising production funds, building new audiences, enriching the fabric of Washington's downtown theatre scene and developing new American theatre works," according to the theatre.

In recognition of her contributions to the arts, President George W. Bush recently presented her with one of the nation's highest honors, the 2002 National Humanities Medal, which is awarded to those whose work illustrates "the importance of the humanities in American life and leads to a greater understanding of who we are as a nation."

The revitalization of Ford's Theatre began in New York in 1965, when an old friend, then Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall, told Mrs. Hewitt of plans to restore the building to its original 1860s grandeur, but as a museum rather than as a theatre. Horrified that the warm, elegant building might remain a grim reminder of one of the nation's worst hours, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Mrs. Hewitt suggested that live productions be included in the renovation concept.

During the next two years, she worked out an agreement that allows the National Park Service to operate Ford's Theatre as a national historic site and museum and the not-for-profit Ford's Theatre Society, established by Mr.s Hewitt in June 1967, to produce live theatre programs. The restored theatre's first production, John Brown's Body, opened on Feb. 12, 1968, the 158th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday. In tribute to Lincoln's love of the performing arts, the mission of the Ford's Theatre Society is "to produce musicals and plays that underscore our country's multiculturalism and illuminate the eclectic character of American life." During the last 34 seasons, Ford's Theatre has presented nearly 70 musicals and more than two dozen world premieres. Its community outreach programs have allowed thousands of students, adults and senior citizens to purchase reduced-price tickets and experience live theatre.

During Ford's initial revitalization process, Mrs. Hewitt concentrated on fundraising and left programming to the National Repertory Theatre and then to New York's Circle in the Square. In 1971, she resigned as president of the Society and assumed the role of executive producer. Under her leadership Ford's Theatre went on to schedule numerous successful productions, such as Godspell (an 18-month run in 1972-73); Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope (which went on to a national tour, Broadway and numerous awards after its 1971 world premiere at Ford's); the immortal Give 'Em Hell, Harry and Will Rogers' U.S.A., both starring James Whitmore; the Washington holiday production of A Christmas Carol; and the hits Elmer Gantry, Don't Let This Dream Go (re-titled Truly Blessed for its 1990 Broadway premiere) and Hot Mikado. Other productions include Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, On Shiloh Hill, I Have a Dream, Kudzu and Eleanor: An American Love Story.

Director David H. Bell, who knew Mrs. Hewitt for 20 years and served as Ford's artistic director for five, told Playbill On-Line: "Her two major themes  revolved around African-American musicals and world premiere musicals or rarely produced musicals of strong American themes [such as] Elmer Gantry, Captains Courageous, Songs From the Tall Grass, On Shiloh Hill, Storyville, Eleanor, etc."

Bell, a Ford's veteran who has staged the annual A Christmas Carol there as well as repeat engagements of The Hot Mikado, added, "The fact that she started out as a speech writer for JFK and started getting interested in preserving the Ford's Theatre as part of his Pennsylvania Avenue restoration vision, explains the fierceness with which she protected and restored the Ford's Theatre. She could have allowed the Ford's to be simply a constantly-running light-and-sound historical show for the tourists but she didn't. Although her roots were not in theatre, she fought for 35 years to make sure that Ford's had the resources to produce live theatre on its stage, because she felt that it couldn't endure as a landmark without it.  I think of the years through which she struggled — years not particularly kind to women in management positions or to the theatre in general and I am in awe of the accomplishments of Frankie Hewitt. I will miss her."

Mrs. Hewitt also served as executive producer of more than 15 network television specials broadcast from Ford's Theatre beginning with "An Inaugural Gala at Ford's," a CBS-TV national broadcast that aired on Jan. 30, 1968, prior to the public unveiling of the theatre. Through a series of televised galas, she "ensured that Ford's Theatre would become a familiar performance space beyond the Washington area," according to the theatre.

Mrs. Hewitt began her career on Capitol Hill in 1958 when she left California, moved to Washington and took positions as a speechwriter and legislative liaison specialist. She went on to become a Senate subcommittee staff director, the first woman to run an investigating committee and the first non-lawyer to lead a judiciary committee. Mrs. Hewitt later moved to New York City, when the newly elected President John F. Kennedy appointed her public affairs advisor under Ambassador Adlai Stevenson at the United States Mission to the United Nations.

She was born in June 17, 1931, to migrant parents in Roger Mills County, Oklahoma, a rural area near the Texas panhandle. At the age of eight, she and her family left the Oklahoma dust bowl and moved to a prune farm in Napa Valley, California. From her earliest years, she learned the benefits of hard work and the realities of struggle. She also developed a never-say-never philosophy, which she maintained throughout her life.

After graduating high school, she landed a job as the women's editor of her hometown daily newspaper, the Napa Daily Register. Two years later, she headed south to Los Angeles to become a model with the Rose Marie Reid Swimsuit Company and by the age of 19, she had become assistant advertising and publicity director.

Mrs. Hewitt is survived by her daughters Jilian Childers Hewitt, from her first marriage to Bob Childers, and Lisa Hewitt Cassara, from her marriage to Don Hewitt, executive producer, CBS' "60 Minutes." Both marriages ended in divorce. Other survivors include son-in-law, William, and grandsons Connor and Jack Cassara; stepsons, Steven and Jeffrey Hewitt; step-grandson, Balin Hewitt; and sister, Patricia Henning.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in her memory may be made to the Maryland Community Hospice, 9940 Franklin Square Drive, Suite K, Baltimore, Maryland 21236.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.