After 40 years, Mary Hausch steps aside


Published: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 10:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 10:28 p.m.

It's a long way from a worn-out 7-Eleven building on Hawthorne Road in 1973 to the beacon of arts and culture that is the Hippodrome Theatre today. And it's been a long time on the road of growth — 40 years — that links the two.

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In this Oct. 31, 2012 file photo, Mary Hausch, producing director and co-founder of the Hippodrome State Theatre, poses on the set of Carrie. Hausch is retiring.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun

For all 40 of them, Mary Hausch has been right there — turning old coffee cans into homemade theater lights, building sets from nothing, writing and distributing posters and playbills, and, of course, producing, directing and acting in hundreds of productions that have made the Hipp a cultural magnet of weighty proportions. Hausch helped make the Hipp a gravitational draw throughout North Central Florida, to say nothing of making it a landmark institution in downtown Gainesville.

Hausch, who on Thursday announced her retirement from the Hipp after 40 years of doing everything imaginable in transforming a tiny theater in a convenience store into the theatrical icon it is today, said she is looking forward to relaxing and enjoying life after Aug. 31, her target retirement date.

And it is that 40-year accomplishment — the Hippodrome Theatre celebrates its four decades with a birthday celebration on May 18 — that had her thinking this year would be a good time to step down.

"It's that 40-year thing," Hausch said Thursday in answer to the question "why now?"

"Two thirds of my life has been the Hippodrome," said Hausch, who retires as the theater's producing director, its top position. "And I have really been working since I was about 5 in my daddy's grocery store (in Miami). So I thought it was about time to have some fun."

If so, members of Gainesville's artistic and business community became a Greek chorus Thursday — recounting Hausch's leadership in the Hipp's success both as a cultural institution and for leading downtown's hard-won renaissance and redevelopment over the last few decades.

"Mary's retirement is the end of an era downtown," said artist Eleanor Blair, whose downtown gallery is a short walk from the Hipp's front steps and doors. "She has contributed as much or more than just about anybody else to the cultural life of our city. She certainly will be missed."

"She has been an absolute fixture of downtown. It's going to be such a loss," said Linda McGurn, who with her husband, Ken McGurn, developed such downtown landmarks as Union Street Station and helped re-establish the Sun Center behind the Hippodrome.

"I think it's kind of like the earth moved a little bit (Thursday) in the cultural part of Gainesville," David Ballard, event coordinator for the city of Gainesville Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, said about Hausch's announcement.

"It's such an established installation in the culture," he said. "I think it's the anchor for downtown really, because not only did it step in and help preserve that building, but it also provided a high-quality cultural theme. And downtown, when it started, really did not have a lot of that."

In 1973, Hausch and five other University of Florida graduates formed a theater in a dilapidated convenience store on the outskirts of town.

"We rented this little 7-Eleven building on Hawthorne Road and just started doing shows and making flyers and handing them out ourselves," Hausch said.

Rocky Draud, the Hipp's general manager and Hausch's husband of many years, said, "Mary has the amazing combination of being an incredibly creative, artistic person as well as a great business mind. And she, from the very beginning, has understood the way to make a business sustainable.

"And that's been so important throughout the recent economic times, as well as continue to produce an amazingly, wonderful, quality product."

In 1975, the Hippodrome upgraded its location by moving into an empty warehouse on U.S. 441. And in 1979, it traded that spot (near the old Gainesville livestock market) for the building that actors, playwrights, stagehands and audiences know it for today: Gainesville's old Federal Building and post office that forms the heart of downtown at Southeast Second Place and First Street.

At the time, downtown was a scene of boarded-up buildings, where chickens could be seen literally crossing the road in front of the Hipp, Hausch said.

And it was there that the Hippodrome made its mark — growing from what had been a small theater into a fully professional, Actors Equity house that today draws 170,000 people a year — a total of 4.5 million over the years — to attend plays, film screenings, educational workshops and other events.

The Hippodrome's hallmark accomplishments are almost too numerous to mention: Its productions include everything from Shakespeare and Broadway's latest hits to original shows, it became a designated State Theatre of Florida in 1980 and now works with more than 400 artists a year in its productions, Hausch says.

Hausch's personal awards include a Florida Theatre Conference Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 and a Spirit of Gainesville award in 2013.

On Thursday, members of Gainesville's business and artistic community lauded Hausch (who said she was near retirement but declined to give her age) for her leadership and dedication to the Hipp.

"The Hippodrome was really critical to the redevelopment of downtown and to bringing businesses and residents back into the core of the city," said Pegeen Hanrahan, Gainesville's mayor from 2004 to 2010.

Said David Ballard, who organizes the weekly "Free Fridays" concert series: "Without the Hippodrome, I wonder how the downtown would have progressed. I wonder if it would be as vibrant. It's hard to imagine had that not happened."

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