Frankie Hewitt, Who Preserved Ford's Theatre for Plays, Remembered at DC Memorial April 28

News   Frankie Hewitt, Who Preserved Ford's Theatre for Plays, Remembered at DC Memorial April 28 Ford's Theatre will hold a memorial service 3 PM April 28 to honor producing artistic director Frankie Hewitt, who died of cancer Feb. 28.

Hewitt was responsible for drumming up support for the continuation of live theatre at the Washington, DC, playhouse where Abraham Lincoln was shot, and she later become the resident producer there.

Speakers at the memorial will include CBS "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace; Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton; actor James Whitmore; dancer Hinton Battle; and stage director David H. Bell.

Hewitt was the driving force behind Ford's Theatre for more than three decades. The day before her death, President Bush awarded Hewitt the National Humanities Medal in recognition of her contributions to the arts.

Under Hewitt's leadership Ford's Theatre produced more than 150 shows, including Godspell; Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope; Give 'Em Hell, Harry and Will Rogers' U.S.A., both starring James Whitmore; the Washington holiday production, A Christmas Carol; the hits Elmer Gantry, Don't Let This Dream Go (re-titled Truly Blessed for its 1990 Broadway premiere); Hot Mikado; Your Arms too Short to Box with God; On Shiloh Hill; I Have a Dream; Kudzu and Eleanor: An American Love Story.

Hewitt served as executive producer of more than 15 network television specials broadcast from Ford's Theatre, including "An American Celebration at Ford's Theatre," taped just two days after her death and scheduled to air at a later date on the ABC Television Network. Born Frankie Teague in Roger Mills County, OK, a rural area near the Texas panhandle, Hewitt is survived by 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.

The memorial service at Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004, is open to the public.

*

The board of trustees of Ford's Theatre Society announced the appointment of Brian J. Laczko as acting executive producer of Ford's Theatre following the death of founder and producing artistic director Hewitt.

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 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, 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 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.

Director David H. Bell, who knew 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."

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. 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.