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Awards & Honors: 2002 National Humanities Medalist

Frankie Hewitt

A casual conversation at dinner with friends led Frankie Hewitt to her thirty-eight-year connection with Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The year was 1965 and Ford’s was known mostly for what had happened at its last performance--the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The theater was closed that night and left standing for a century.

Hewitt’s conversation was with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He told Hewitt the federal government, which owned Ford’s, was going to renovate the building and reopen it as a museum.

Hewitt was horrified. “They were going to put the theater back exactly as it was the night Lincoln was shot,” she says.

“They didn’t even plan to restore the backstage area. It was like building a monument to John Wilkes Booth.” She suggested that it reopen as a real theater. Udall responded by telling her “the government can’t run a theater.”

But Hewitt could. She soon formed the nonprofit Ford’s Theatre Society and negotiated a ten-year contract with the Department of the Interior under which the Society would produce live theater at Ford’s. The theater reopened on the 158th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday--February 12, 1968--with a production of John Brown’s Body. After two theater companies failed to garner critical or financial success, Hewitt herself became the producing artistic director and has held that role ever since. Her first production was the allblack musical, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. She has since staged shows such as My Arm’s Too Short to Box with God, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry, and Will Rogers’ USA. The theater runs an annual holiday production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The shows are all original productions and some have gone on to the Broadway stage.

What makes Ford’s dear to Hewitt’s heart is that it is a family theater, emphasizing shows for young people. “It’s the perfect place to introduce young people to theater,” she says with pride. “At Ford’s you get a history lesson and an arts experience.” (The box where Lincoln sat on that fateful night is preserved in his memory.) “That’s what separates us from other theaters.”

It probably also has something to do with Hewitt’s tenacity. The daughter of migrant workers from the Oklahoma dust bowl, Hewitt moved to a prune farm in California’s Napa Valley area as a child. Her hardscrabble early years gave her a sense of what hard work and persistence could accomplish. During high school she was the women’s editor of the Napa Daily Register. At age nineteen she was assistant director of advertising and publicity at a swimsuit company.

By 1958 she was working as a speechwriter and legislative liaison in Washington, D.C. Within a year she was staff director of a Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency. She was the first woman to run an investigating committee on Capitol Hill and the first non-lawyer to run a judiciary committee. Two years later, during the Kennedy administration, she moved to New York City to serve as public affairs adviser to Ambassador Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations.

Her biggest challenge was making Ford’s Theatre a success. She used her political and fundraising skills to bring Ford’s Theatre into American homes through the annual televised presidential evenings staged at the theater. The galas help raise funds for Ford’s and have included performers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Whoopi Goldberg. “Every president and first lady have attended since it started during the Nixon administration,” says Hewitt, “and they seem to enjoy it. I feel very lucky about what I do.”

By Maggie Riechers