When a reporter asked Frankie Hewitt a question she didn't like, she would usually give a look that was two parts schoolmarm and one part aggrieved mother. The silent message, as I read it, was something like: "I can't believe you're trying to make my life more difficult when I work so hard to keep Ford's Theatre alive." She could be pretty intimidating.
Hewitt, who died of cancer Friday at age 71, glared because she knew one thing for sure: Before she came along, Ford's Theatre was just a dingy museum. She had the idea that the place where President Lincoln was shot should return to its intended function, and she made it happen. Ford's Theatre was a different concept in National Park Service sites, and it added life to a then-dreary and feared part of downtown, gave jobs to hundreds of performers and technicians, introduced thousands of local schoolchildren to the performing arts, and offered a bill of fare that rarely offended the legions of tourists who enjoyed the quaint and intimate venue. (A few years ago, during the run of "Fully Committed," a show that contained profanity, advertisements warned customers of the potential offense.)
Hewitt set herself a tough challenge, and it wasn't just that the historically accurate chairs in the 740-seat house were notoriously hard, even after cushions were added. She was running both a public trust and a commercial enterprise, a national museum that was also a competitive theater. She had no background in theater, and her personal preferences ran toward the uplifting and upbeat. She wanted people to have a "pleasant and positive theater experience" and to leave the theater "feeling better than when they came in." At the same time, she wanted to play in the big leagues, to find that perfect show that would go on to Broadway and provide acclaim and lucrative royalties, and appease the critics who so rarely raved about her shows. She came close once or twice. "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" had a successful afterlife, and "Elmer Gantry" almost did; "Hot Mikado" was redone in London, and the recent one-man revue "George Gershwin Alone" was a critical and box office success.
But we also remember 18 months of the treacly "Godspell," seemingly endless one-man productions by James Whitmore ("Give 'Em Hell, Harry," "Will Rogers' U.S.A.,") the dreadful "All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" and the inevitable annual visit of "A Christmas Carol."
A few years ago I went to ask Hewitt why 'Christmas Carol' had to come around every year. It had become a kind of necessary albatross, I felt, and despite efforts at refurbishing the sets and rejuvenating the actors, it had become a kind of live-action version of holiday-themed department store windows. I climbed up the two narrow flights to her cozily furnished office, which featured a large sofa and lots of pictures of her with glitterati, and laid out my case. She explained that she'd tried to kill it for two years in the mid-'80s, offering such cheery alternatives as "Little Me" and a troupe of Chinese acrobats. "People would stop me on the street in July and say I'd ruined their Christmas," she said. And the show's ability to subsidize other productions could not be ignored, she added, since it brought in about 15 percent of the theater's annual revenue. So when I asked whether she was going to try something new again, just for fun, she gave me that glare: "Not a chance."
According to the theater's numbers, she produced more than 150 shows in 34 years. Seventy were musicals, and 24 were world premieres. There were times when Ford's was dark for want of product, and times when audiences stayed away. But Hewitt knew how to raise money to keep the thing afloat. She was adept at political networking no matter which party was in power, and she hauled in countless celebrities for the annual gala. She more or less invented the corporate deal -- companies ante up various thousands of dollars, get invited to the gala, and schmooze with senators and Cabinet secretaries. Everybody goes home happy. She cultivated power wives with genuine interest, and there was always at least one House speaker's wife on her list of board members and committee chairmen. It was a perfect blend for a theater known primarily as the scene of a president's unfortunate last public appearance.
Hewitt was proud of her hardscrabble childhood -- and it was a such a good story that no reporter ever checked it out: staying clear of her alcoholic migrant worker father, harvesting prunes during the Depression, leaving home at 15 and making her own way with public relations skills, good looks and ambition as far as a Senate staff job and, later, a post at the United Nations, not to mention her high-profile (11-year) second marriage to "60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt. She cut a good deal with the Ford's Theatre Society, the producing entity that technically employed her, and lived more comfortably than a lot of theater producers (but not as well as a company executive, she would argue). One summer in the mid-'80s, when the theater was on a six-week hiatus, she filed for unemployment compensation from the State of Maryland, even though she was then making more than $70,000 a year plus expenses and spent the six weeks at her home on Fire Island, unlike the poorly paid actors and stagehands who survived on unemployment between jobs. She was unapologetic when my colleague David Richards and I asked her about it.
The toughness that got her through early traumas and tribulations could also make her difficult to work for. Even in a business known for high employee turnover, hers was notable. At one point a few years ago, it seemed as if former Ford staffers were working at every other major theater in town, from the Kennedy Center to Wolf Trap. Some of them remained friends with her. She went through artistic directors like cold cream, never quite wanting to relinquish her hold on the reins. Plans to step down, or share the load, were often discussed but never realized.
It seems that for all her talk about how disappointed she was to find the theater business so full of backstabbers and double-dealers, false promisers and neurotics, she really quite liked it. She always appeared to be in her element on opening nights, a cordial presence with beautifully coifed hair and elegant clothes draping her tall, slim frame. I heard from one of her friends that her last show, the Gershwin revue, was one of her all-time favorites. I was glad to hear it. She deserved to go out with a hit.