Frankie Hewitt, Washington, D.C. impresario who single-handedly revived historic Ford’s Theater and turned it into a vibrant cultural venue where she produced over 150 shows, died Feb. 28 of cancer at her home. She was 71.
Only one day earlier, she had received the National Humanities Medal from President Bush.
Hewitt’s association with Ford’s began in 1965, when the former Capitol Hill staffer and United Nations aide discussed the landmark with old chum Stewart Udall, who at the time was Secretary of the Interior. Udall said the department was intending to renovate the building, which had remained shuttered since that dark day in 1865 when actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln during a production of the play, “Our American Cousin.”
Initial plans called for simply turning the building into a museum. Appalled at the prospect, Hewitt set out to also return live theater to the once proud facility. She possessed little experience in theater but enjoyed strong political connections and, as it turned out, a prowess for fundraising. With the Interior Department’s blessing, she formed the nonprofit Ford’s Theater Society and began raising money to produce plays and musicals. Her quest was aided by then-husband Don Hewitt of “60 Minutes,” who suggested that a television special be broadcast from the site to provide visibility.
The relationship began with Hewitt concentrating on fundraising while programming was provided by the National Repertory Theater and later by New York’s Circle in the Square. In 1971, she resigned as president of the Society to assume a role as executive producer.
Following a charter that required productions to illuminate the eclectic character of American life, as well as her personal artistic tastes she described as “mainstream,” Hewitt went to work. She produced nearly 70 musicals and more than two dozen world premieres. Successes include an 18-month run of “Godspell” in 1972-73, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” James Whitmore’s “Will Rogers’ USA” and “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry,” “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,” a musical version of “Elmer Gantry,” and many others.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans gained familiarity with Ford’s via annual televised fundraising galas that typically draw the U.S. President along with well known performers.
Tall and elegant, Hewitt moved easily among the corporate elite upon whom she relied for financial support. She received numerous awards and honors for her achievements, but she remained proudest of her role in helping elevate the nation’s capital to a major destination for live theater.
She was born in Oklahoma to a migrant family that left the dust bowl and moved to a prune farm in Napa Valley, Calif. After graduating from high school, she landed a job as a society editor with her hometown daily newspaper, and later moved to Los Angeles. She came to Washington in 1958 and took a job as a senate staffer. She later moved to New York City, where President John F. Kennedy appointed her public affairs advisor under Ambassador Adlai Stevenson at the United States Mission to the United Nations.
She is survived by her daughters Jilian Childers Hewitt, from her first marriage to Bob Childers, and Lisa Hewitt Cassara, from her marriage to Don Hewitt. Both marriages ended in divorce. Other survivors include her sister, Patricia Henning, and several grandchildren.