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Founding father

Cliff Baker began a theater—and a tradition

Cliff Fannin Baker died as had lived: hard at work trying to restore the repertory theater company he had founded to fiscal and artistic health. The roar of the crowd and the smell of greasepaint had been part of him for so long that he might have been born ready to tread the boards.

He was taking part in a session on corporate financing of the arts when he was struck down by a brain hemorrhage from which he was not to recover. And he left to the applause and tributes of many grateful admirers throughout the world--for this one time there was to be no encore, at least not in this world.

Cliff died with his husband and faithful companion Guy Couch at his side just a week short of his 71st birthday. As always he was there to comfort, advise and lead even as the theater company he'd started found itself foundering.

Among the mourners was Arkansas' Bill Rector, a member of the theater's board who's serving as the Rep's interim general manager. "Cliff's counsel has been invaluable these past four months," Mr. Rector noted. "And when we announce our new season, you will recognize Cliff's influence in our choices of productions. As we get this theater back on solid ground, the Rep will be a testimony to the gift that Cliff gave to all of us."

It may not be too early to consider renaming the storied old Rep that Cliff Baker spent more than two decades making a certified Actors' Equity company. He'd been scheduled to direct a show at the Rep in February. And though the title of the show has yet to be announced, it'll surely be one with Cliff Baker's indelible panache, offering substance for the mind and delight for the heart.

"His legacy, his influence," says Natalie Canerday, a native of Russellville who acts on stage and screen, and whose very first show with Cliff Baker was a production of the comedy The Foreigner in January 1986, "was having the insight to start a nationally recognized theater in the state. That's just amazing, that's remarkable, in kind of a poor state that isn't really known for the arts, [but] we did become known for the arts . . . ."

Why shouldn't we aim high? Such modest claims demonstrate that the all too well-known Arkansas inferiority complex is still alive and well. For if you think Cliff Baker's career has changed Arkansans' evaluation of ourselves, you'd think wrong. If you thought our view of ourselves had changed from Before Cliff Baker to after his stellar contribution to this state's art scene, you'd think wrong. For this state's poor image is mainly in its own mind, not the nation's or the world's. Isn't it time we all stopped low-rating ourselves? In addition to his other gifts to Arkansas, a healthy boost in our self-respect and esteem should be counted among the other benefits he conferred on this great state.

Cliff Baker, who came from little Hermann, Mo., chose to head south, young man, after seeing a show staged by the Arkansas Arts Center's theater department at the University of Missouri, where he was studying journalism of all things. By 1968, he'd found his way to Arkansas, which he recognized was (and still is) the Land of Opportunity in this country of opportunity.

After spending time in Birmingham, Ala., and Miami, he returned to Little Rock in the early 1970s. By 1976, he founded the grandly titled Theatre of the Arkansas Philharmonic in a storefront on Kavanaugh Boulevard in the Heights neighborhood and transformed that small space, a former ice cream parlor, into a Broadway of the mind and soul.

Guy Couch still recalls being fascinated by Baker's production of Paul Zindel's play And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little. "I just thought," he says, "Oh my God, this is real. This is real theater. This is not children's theater, this is not college theater, this is theater. It was so well done." Just as Cliff Baker did everything within his considerable power as an artist, performer and man.

The rest is history, which is little but biography writ large. Cliff Baker now moves on to another and greater stage, but something tells us it'll never be as great as that small space he made the center of all eyes back in his youth and heyday. R.I.P., Cliff Baker.

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Paul Greenberg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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