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Frankie Hewitt, 71; Force Behind Revival of Ford's Theatre

March 03, 2003|From the Washington Post

Frankie Hewitt, the force behind the rebirth of Ford's Theatre as a thriving cultural institution in downtown Washington, D.C., died Friday of cancer at her home in Kensington, Md. She was 71.

A day earlier, President Bush had awarded her the National Humanities Medal, the latest in a long string of honors.

Hewitt worked out the first agreement in the 1960s to restore live performance to the derelict building on 10th Street NW, the site of Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865. She founded the nonprofit Ford's Theatre Society, became a prodigious fund-raiser for the theater's original plays and musicals and produced more than 150 of them herself.

She courted national corporate sponsors and other well-heeled contributors and lured them to Washington with chances to mingle with presidents, Cabinet members and congressional leaders at annual galas at the theater and at White House receptions.

Hewitt began her work at a time when there was little live professional theater in Washington beyond the National Theater. The Kennedy Center had not yet opened.

Little more than a warehouse for the bulk of its existence, Ford's had gone dark after President Lincoln was fatally shot by actor John Wilkes Booth. The Interior Department was considering restoring it, but with only a sound-and-light show for tourists.

Hewitt, a former Capitol Hill and United Nations aide, had little theater experience herself, but was able to draw on her skills as a political insider to get Ford's going. In 1965, she told her friend Stewart Udall, then the interior secretary, that she knew of a company that could stage performances at Ford's. She became a consultant to the Interior Department in putting together a nonprofit organization for the theater.

Her husband at the time, "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt, suggested that a television special could be broadcast from Ford's to get the project going. Frankie Hewitt went on to put Ford's on the national cultural map with a series of televised fund-raisers featuring performers such as Luciano Pavarotti, James Stewart, Liza Minnelli, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jay Leno, Whoopi Goldberg and Natalie Cole.

Ford's reopened Feb. 12, 1968, 13 days after the first television gala, with Stephen Vincent Benet's "John Brown's Body."

When initial offerings proved unpopular, Hewitt began booking shows herself and, in 1971, produced her first show, Vinnette Carroll's "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope." In addition to musicals, Ford's also staged a number of relatively inexpensive one-person shows, such as "Will Rogers' U.S.A." and "Give 'Em Hell, Harry," both starring James Whitmore.

Hewitt was born Frankie Teague into a poverty-stricken Oklahoma family that migrated when she was 8 from the Dust Bowl to a prune farm in California's Napa Valley. She left home at 15, became the society editor of the Napa Valley Register three years later, and then was a public relations official for the Rose Marie Reid bathing suit company in Los Angeles.

The twice-divorced promoter -- from Bob Childers and Don Hewitt -- wrote speeches and edited radio broadcasts for the California Institute of Social Welfare before moving to Washington in 1956 to work as a legislative aide at the National Institute of Social Welfare. She went on to became staff director of a U.S. Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency and then public affairs advisor to Adlai Stevenson, then ambassador to the United Nations.

Survivors include two daughters, two stepsons, a sister and three grandchildren.

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