Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

A Time to Mourn: Mary Cogswell Baum Leaves the Scene

Mary Cogswell Baum

I know things have been a bit quiet here, but sometimes life intervenes. In this case, I want to acknowledge the passing of one of the myriad of comparative unknowns who helped to develop artistic Los Angeles. This week, Mary Cogswell Baum succumbed, ending a life as eclectically artistic as any I have known.

Most recently, she was a fellow theatrical critic, writing critiques for several weeklies starting with the old Altadena Chronicle, through the Sierra Madre News, and finally Sierra Madre Mountain Views. Before that she taught theater arts in the public school system, and costume design at Pasadena City College.

Still, to say that was her only contribution would be silly. Mary began her performing career at the age of 16, when as a flamenco artist she joined the locally-based Raul de Ramirez Dance Company. She continued to perform with them as well as school-based groups through the early days of World War II, graduating from Pasadena Junior College and heading to Stanford just as the war was winding down. There she earned a B.A. with a major in theater, and a minor in physical education – the only way that institution could give credit for her studies in dance. While there she not only performed as a dancer, but acted and choreographed, including choreography for operas put on by the great Jan Popper, at Stanford as a refugee from Nazi Germany. She became a member of “Rams Head,” the drama association at Stanford. Her fellow students included Jack Palance, of whom she said, upon his being handed an Oscar late in his career, “You’ll notice he still didn’t thank anyone but himself.”

Upon her return to Southern California, she continued to dance and choreograph, and also to teach, directing such classics as “Dr. Faustus” and the Shakespearean canon with rural high school students in Corona and Tustin before moving to Pasadena’s schools. She was close to the members of Orchard Gables, a rather counterculture theater group in Hollywood which included among its members playwright James Leo Herlihy, among others. She would probably have embraced the “beat” movement even more thoroughly than she did had she not married a mathematician in 1952. They divorced in 1975. She continued to take dance classes in every genre from jazz to tap to the folk dances of various cultures from the Japanese to the various Polynesian peoples, to northern Europeans, and to teach these dances to her junior high and high school students.

Mary was an award-winning photographer as well, and her subject was often dancers and dance companies. A photo of hers became the logo of the Pasadena Dance Theatre, a leader in the regional ballet movement. Her last photography session with a major group was for the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, and she considered Bella a friend. Creative in other ways, she was known for her authentic Punch and Judy shows, using finely crafted puppets she made herself, and she won several blue ribbons for hand crafts at the Los Angeles County Fair.

Mary wrote and directed plays for junior high students, and was known locally for her highly theatrical holiday pageants. She had a passion for the legitimate theater as well as for dance, and passed that love on to her own children and to the many students she taught in nearly 40 years of work as an educator.

Why do I know so much about this woman? She was, and is, my mother. My first review was written for the Altadena Chronicle when I substituted for her one night. My passion for the theater, my love of live performance and my rounded view of the art world come in large part from growing up in her presence. She was a little eccentric, highly creative, artistically gifted, and absolutely unique. The world is just a little smaller now that she is no longer a part of it.

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4 responses to “A Time to Mourn: Mary Cogswell Baum Leaves the Scene

  1. Ward Calaway November 14, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    Thanks for such a nice review of a good friend. We at Sierra Madre Playhouse knew Mary as a nice white-haired lady who regularly reviewed our shows and seldom wrote a discouraging word – even when one was indicated. I was certainly not aware of her dance and photographic careers. It makes me think that each of the people who cross our threshold have stories, each interesting in its own way. I’ll bet there would be a lot of “Wow! I had no idea” reactions if we only knew.

    Our condolences and best thoughts to you,

    Ward

    • Frances Baum Nicholson November 14, 2012 at 10:00 PM

      Thank you, Ward. She loved the way SMP grew and sophisticated. I appreciate your good wishes.

  2. Ken Werther November 14, 2012 at 8:44 PM

    I had the pleasure of working with Mary for many years in my career as a theatrical press agent. She was always good-humored, fair, and easy to get along with. She will be missed.
    Frances – this is a most beautiful tribute. My heartfelt condolences go out to you at this difficult time.
    -Kenny

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