- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

A much beloved theater teacher, tireless activist for the arts, friend of presidents and influential leader in the effort to break the color barrier at Washington's long-segregated playhouses, "show biz priest" Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke was a character for all seasons.
The man who founded Catholic University's Department of Speech and Drama in 1937 and ran it with a nurturing hand until he retired in 1974 had a profound, lasting effect on theater in this city. And through the impressive roster of actors, directors and playwrights whose careers he helped jump-start, Hartke's legacy became global.
Yet when one such renowned stage director, former Catholic University professor Alan Schneider was asked to describe Hartke "Father Hartke" to all who knew him he chose to call him "the greatest master of salesmanship I have ever met." Whether selling the university on the value of a viable, secular drama school, the Department of Defense on sending his fledgling troupe of touring actors called The National Players overseas as a goodwill ambassador, negotiating a sweetheart deal with the owner of High's Dairy Stores for the then summer stock theater in Olney, Maryland, or selling his students on their own talents, Hartke was always selling something.
I met and chatted with him on many occasions as the theater critic for this newspaper in the 1980s, but the most vivid encounter that comes to mind absolutely illustrates Schneider's point. The year was 1983, and I was interviewing stage and television star Hal Linden at a restaurant named Mel Krupin's, which happened to be a favorite haunt of Hartke's. Although he had taken a vow of poverty in his Dominican order, that did not prevent him from enjoying first-rate meals amid the expense account crowd.
Father Hartke spotted Mr. Linden like a hawk looking for fresh prey and within minutes was sitting down at our table, affably charming TV's Barney Miller with tales of friends they had in common. Without pausing for a response, he gently pressured Mr. Linden to appear at an upcoming benefit for some worthy cause and, if that were not possible, he was not shy about seeking a donation to yet another needy charity. The ease with which he launched into his pitch and kept trying to close the deal has always stuck with me.
Understanding that his personal history was so intertwined with that of Catholic University and with the development of Washington into a world-class theater town, Hartke enlisted former student Mary Jo Santo Pietro to conduct a series of interviews with him. Weekly, she would travel to Washington from New Jersey, where she teaches speech and language pathology, to record his memories. Some 16 years after his death in 1986, they have led to this affectionate biography, "Father Hartke."
While there is no indication why the book has taken so long to complete, it truly is a history of Washington theater, as seen through the prism of Hartke's involvement and advocacy. Carefully researched and exhaustively written, it collects and keeps alive the progress made in the performing arts here during much of the last century. Curiously, however, the book falls short of capturing much of the spirit of this tireless man or of getting inside his head to offer insight to what really made him tick.
Still, "Father Hartke" is a valuable document, even if it feels like a half-filled glass. As an account of the rise of Catholic University as a force in local and national theater circles, it is admirable, even if the thought gnaws that the book could have had such wider appeal had the author given us the more anecdotal, personal tale of Hartke as well.
For Hartke's history is intertwined with so many major names in theater and show business. When students would come up short on tuition, Hartke would always find the money to keep them in school. He made sure that they worked for these scholarship loans and there is an intriguing reference to "Laugh In's" Henry Gibson serving as Hartke's chauffeur. Tony Award winner Philip Bosco and Oscar winner Jon Voight toiled away in the scenery construction shop and Susan Sarandon typed in the university's business office. But even these are mere mentions that cry out to become colorful stories.
Catholic University did train a remarkable number of talented actors who went on to have important careers.
Roy Scheider, George Grizzard, Frances Sternhagen, John McGiver and Olympia Dukakis are among those mentioned, but the direct effect that Hartke had on these people is unclear. In a generally uncritical biography, there is mention that the classes Hartke taught were often surreal, as Mr. Gibson put it, but there is frustratingly little elaboration.
Nor was Hartke much of a director, although he staged some 60 major productions at Catholic University and another dozen for the National Players. The author is either too close to her subject to discuss his shortcomings, or she is simply unanalytical. Of Hartke's abilities in this area, she writes only, "Was he a great director? Probably not, but he had his gifts."
Surely one of those gifts, besides the salesmanship, was his knack for encouraging the development of others. Hartke's zeal for new work was probably responsible for the number of notable playwrights that went through the Catholic University drama program. Hartke would point with pride at every opportunity to such alumni as Pulitzer Prize winners Jason Miller ("That Championship Season") and Michael Christofer ("The Shadow Box"), as well as John Pielmeier ("Agnes of God").
Significantly, and unfortunately, he was less verbal about two other former university students' more commercial efforts, James Rado's musical "Hair" with its infamous nude scene, and Mart Crowley's landmark gay drama, "The Boys in the Band." Hartke is said to have avoided ever seeing Crowley's play, even though it featured Catholic University alumnus Laurence Luckinbill and was first directed by another graduate who had a successful, if too brief, New York career, Robert Moore. The author briefly mentions Hartke's discomfort with the play's subject and all too easily excuses his failure to acknowledge the work.
Hartke was an very politically savvy man, and over the course of his career he was a frequent visitor to the White House and confidant of presidents, from Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan. When the Defense Department needed "a little clout on the civilian side" to send out a National Players tour to military bases overseas, Hartke picked up the phone and gained Truman's backing. When a student on tour received a sudden visit from the Federal Bureau of Investigation because he had been unreachable by his draft board, Hartke cleared up the situation with a call to J. Edgar Hoover.
Although registered as neither a Republican nor a Democrat, Hartke once made the tactical mistake of lending his name to an arts and letters committee in support of the Hubert Humphrey campaign for president. Soon after Richard Nixon took office, the new president eliminated the White House afternoon recitals that Hartke and his stage crew had assembled on a regular basis during the Kennedy and Johnson years.
Still, it is that ability to sell that has made a large part of Hartke's legacy such institutions and edifices as The National Players, the Olney Center for the Performing Arts and the Hartke Theatre on the Catholic University campus. The struggles and the triumphs of putting those entities together are well documented in "Father Hartke." As to the man, he remains a fascinating enigma.

Hap Erstein covered the performing arts for The Washington Times from 1982 through 1993, and currently writes about theater and film in West Palm Beach, Fla.



Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide