Mer­rell H. Ham­ble­ton

She helped run the noted Phoenix The­atre in New York, where ca­reers of many noted ac­tors were launched

Baltimore Sun - - OBITUARIES - By Fred­er­ick N. Rasmussen fras­mussen@balt­sun.com

Mer­rell H. Ham­ble­ton, a fundraiser who as­sisted her hus­band, pro­ducer T. Ed­ward Ham­ble­ton, in the op­er­a­tion of his Phoenix The­ater in New York, died Satur­day at her home in the Broad­mead re­tire­ment com­mu­nity in Cock­eysville of com­pli­ca­tions from a fall. She was 94. The daugh­ter of Al­bert Hop­kins, an in­sur­ance ex­ec­u­tive, and Net­tie Beall, a home­maker, Mer­rell Hop­kins was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., and raised in Pel­ham Manor, N.Y.

She was a grad­u­ate of War­ren­ton Coun­try School in War­ren­ton, Va., and spent sum­mers at the Perry Mans­field Camp in Steam­boat Springs, Colo., where her mother ran an adult camp and made cos­tumes for its the­ater school.

An ac­com­plished horse­woman, she later be­came a coun­selor and in­struc­tor.

“How­ever, at 17, love lured me into the the­ater. I fell madly in love with the tech­ni­cian, an older man of 27 or so, and the shape of my fu­ture was set,” Mrs. Ham­ble­ton re­called in an un­pub­lished mem­oir. “From then on I was just as the­ater-mad as I had been horse-mad.”

Mrs. Ham­ble­ton learned to build sets and fab­ri­cate light­ing equip­ment. “[I] lived, ate and slept the­ater,” she re­called. She also stud­ied dance un­der Agnes De Mille, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon, a young Mex­i­can painter.

Though she had been ac­cepted at Vas­sar Col­lege in New York, a love of the Amer­i­can West lured Mrs. Ham­ble­ton to study the­ater at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona.

“The whole pe­riod in the West, dur­ing which I had a chance to see much of Colorado, New Mex­ico and Ari­zona, left a deep im­print on my life,” she wrote. “My love of the out­doors and the great sweep and grandeur of the West­ern land­scape was the be­gin­ning of my love of na­ture.”

After two years, she trans­ferred to Ben­ning­ton Col­lege in Ver­mont to study with Arch Lauterer, a noted set and light­ing de­signer. She called him “an­other great im­pact on my life.”

She grad­u­ated from Ben­ning­ton in 1943, then en­rolled at Smith Col­lege, where she earned a master’s de­gree in 1945..

In 1947, she went to New York City to try and break into the­ater, but soon dis­cov­ered “women tech­ni­cians were per­sona non grata,” she wrote.

She learned how to type and take short­hand and went to work for Stage for Ac­tion, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that used live the­ater to dra­ma­tize the plight of the work­ing man and high­light so­cial jus­tice.

In 1947, she took a job with the Amer­i­can Na­tional The­atre and Academy, where she ran the switch­board, did sec­re­tar­ial work, and did play read­ing for its Ex­per­i­men­tal The­atre, which pro­duced plays us­ing Amer­i­can direc­tors and ac­tors.

While work­ing at ANTA she met a 37-year-old Bal­ti­more wid­ower, T. Ed­ward Ham­ble­ton, who had started pro­duc­ing plays on Broad­way in 1937.

In 1948, she went to work for Mr. Ham­ble­ton — known to friends and col­leagues sim­ply as “T” — who at the time was tak­ing “Bal­let Ballads” to Broad­way. “I did ev­ery­thing in­clud­ing the pay­roll,” she wrote.

Lunch­ing with his part­ner, Al­fred Stern, the con­ver­sa­tion of­ten turned to find­ing a wife for the wid­ower. One day she said to Mr. Stern, “I’ve found a wife for ‘T.’ ” When he asked who, she replied: “Me.” The cou­ple wed in 1949. “His first wife — my mother, Carolyn Hoys­radt — had died of po­lio, leav­ing him with three young daugh­ters,” said Linda Ham­ble­ton Panitz, Mrs. Ham­ble­ton’s step­daugh­ter and a res­i­dent of Roland Park.

“I thought she was ei­ther a saint or crazy,” said Ms. Panitz of her step­mother with a laugh. “She re­ally was quite re­mark­able.”

The cou­ple went on to have three ad­di­tional chil­dren, Ms. Panitz said. She said meals at their home were al­ways rushed be­cause of a wait­ing the­ater cur­tain.

Mr. Ham­ble­ton helped es­tab­lish the off-Broad­way move­ment when he and an­other part­ner, Nor­ris Houghton, co­founded the non­profit Phoenix The­atre in 1953.

The the­ater helped es­tab­lish the ca­reers of direc­tor Hal Prince, play­wrights Wendy Wasser­stein and Christo­pher Du­rang, and ac­tors in­clud­ing Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Carol Bur­nett, Rose­mary Har­ris and Sigour­ney Weaver.

Mrs. Ham­ble­ton’s role at the Phoenix was han­dling sub­scrip­tions and fundrais­ing. She later worked in the the­ater’s de­vel­op­ment of­fice and chaired its aux­il­iary board. “They hired count­less ac­tors and direc­tors who had been black­listed in Hol­ly­wood dur­ing the Joseph McCarthy era and came to New York look­ing for work, in­clud­ing Hume Croyn and Jes­sica Tandy,” said a grand­daugh­ter, Anne Ham­ble­ton Watts, of Cam­bridge.

The cou­ple lived on East 86th Street in Man­hat­tan and spent week­ends at a 50-acre es­tate in Ti­mo­nium that had been owned orig­i­nally by Mr. Ham­ble­ton’s great-grand­fa­ther. They later resided there in re­tire­ment be­fore mov­ing to Broad­mead in 2000.

“It was hec­tic. They lived on the New Jersey Turn­pike with kids and dogs jammed in the car. She kept ev­ery­one calm by play­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic on the car ra­dio,” Ms. Watts said.

“My par­ents al­ways had an open-door pol­icy. You never could tell who was com­ing. There was al­ways lots of good food and con­ver­sa­tion in the li­brary,” Ms. Panitz said.

The Phoenix The­atre closed in 1982. Mr. Ham­ble­ton died in 2005.

Mrs. Ham­ble­ton chaired the board of direc­tors at Ben­ning­ton Col­lege and a com­mit­tee that se­lected the ar­chi­tect for its Per­form­ing Arts and Vis­ual Arts build­ings.

She was a com­mu­ni­cant of Trin­ity Epis­co­pal Church in Tow­son, where she had been pres­i­dent of Epis­co­pal Church Women.

She en­joyed trav­el­ing to Europe and spend­ing time on a canal boat jointly owned with three other cou­ples. She also liked va­ca­tion­ing in Fen­wick, Conn., on Long Is­land Sound.

She liked to read, and also painted and sten­ciled early Amer­i­can trays and tole­ware.

In ad­di­tion to at­tend­ing the the­ater, she was an avid bird watcher and con­ser­va­tion­ist. She was a mem­ber of the Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety, Na­tional Wildlife As­so­ci­a­tion, Sierra Club and the Cos­mopoli­tan Club.

“She had great hu­mil­ity and never, ever tooted her own horn even though she had played a key role at the Phoenix,” Ms. Panitz said. “She was a su­pe­rior woman and quite feisty. She was a fem­i­nist and lib­eral po­lit­i­cally.

“She was a very strong woman in a very un­der­stated way,” she said. “Daddy would have been lost with­out her.”

Plans for a me­mo­rial ser­vice were in­com­plete.

In ad­di­tion to Ms. Panitz and Ms. Watts, she is sur­vived by two sons, T. Ed­ward Ham­ble­ton of Ti­mo­nium and Ed­ward Ham­ble­ton of Fairfax, Va.; an­other step­daugh­ter, Su­san Ham­ble­ton of New York City; seven other grand­chil­dren; and seven great-grand­chil­dren. A daugh­ter, Mary Ham­ble­ton died in 2009; and Anne Ham­ble­ton, a step­daugh­ter, died in 1962. Mer­rell H. Ham­ble­ton was an avid bird watcher and con­ser­va­tion­ist.

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