by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
In the span of just three weeks, Olney Theatre Center lost two women whose long friendship brightened the theater community.
Margaret “Maggi” Root and Gertrude “Trudy” Poe met at Olney Theatre and formed a lasting bond that not only impacted them as individuals, but reverberated onto the stage.
Known as Olney Theatre’s grand dames, the women were generous in their support of the theater and their individual community interests.
Root, of Leisure World, died on June 24 at age 95 and Poe, of Ashton, died July 13 at 101.
“Both women loved the theater, its artists, its plays, its audiences and its grounds,” Olney Theatre Center Managing Director Debbie Ellinghaus said. “They loved Shakespeare and Noel Coward, Golden Age musicals and contemporary work, they both believed the written word was most powerful when spoken from the stage.”
Many of Root’s contributions supported specific projects, such as The Root Family Stage, which often hosts Olney Theatre’s Free Summer Shakespeare series and National Players performances.
“Maggi’s spirit is and will be present everywhere on our campus,” Ellinghaus said. “She not only helped build a stage, but also created the Maggi Root Courtyard garden. She quite literally helped ‘grow’ our campus in a way that brings our art to a wider audience and provides that audience and our artists an inspiring environment for art to flourish.”
Ellinghaus added that Root and Poe are an important part of the theater’s history and very much at the heart of the Olney Theatre Center family.
Former District 14 State Sen. Karen S. Montgomery worked at the Olney Theatre as development director during its first million-dollar campaign for improvements to the Historic Stage and said she introduced the two ladies.
She said they were mentors to her and to many other people.
“Their general activities and kindness were just great,” she said.
Montgomery said she has worked with many ambassadors and ambassadors’ wives in her career, and that Poe and Root “were equal to any of the world powers” that she had met.
“It was a pleasure to know both and it was lucky for our community that those two women lived out here,” she said.
Debra Kraft, a former managing director at Olney Theatre Center, also worked closely with the pair, whom she described as “lovely, positive, strong and direct women, absolutely elegant.”
“They were excellent women, each in their own right,” she said. “Their friendship was formed when the theater’s expansion began in the late 1990s. It really grew once the new theater was built and opening nights became a year-round tradition. This made it really easy for Maggi and Trudy to gravitate together. Through their love and care and longevity of the theater, their visions brought them together.”
Vicci Rodgers, Poe’s great-niece, concurred, saying theirs was a friendship that grew strong in their final chapters of life.
“These two women really were trailblazers, supporting the performing arts on stage and able to use their resources to further the artistry and storytelling that brought them so much joy,” Rodgers said. “The Olney Theatre was a beautiful place for them to find each other.”
Rodgers recalls Poe and Root in recent years, often getting together to look at old Olney Theatre Center newsletters or chat about how the theater had changed over the years.
“It was just a gentle, beautiful friendship, like a story on the stage,” Rodgers said. “They were the grand dames of the Olney Theatre, but they were friends — a powerful force together, although they came at it from different worlds.”
Opening Night was always special for the two friends.
“They were always both sparking with life on opening night — drinking sherry together and just beaming,” Rodgers said.
Poe was so closely identified with those events that her family is directing memorial donations to the newly established Poe Opening Night Fund at Olney Theatre Center.
The fund will support events celebrating Opening Night performances, including the annual holiday musical, which was Poe’s favorite event of the year. This year’s musical, “Annie,” was one of her favorites.
“Opening Nights are a time to celebrate our accomplishments and recognize the hard work of all the people that contribute to making a big musical or new play a reality,” Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith said. “That spirit of appreciation and joy are very much part of Trudy’s legacy.”
Contributions to the Poe Opening Night Fund can be made at OlneyTheatre.org/Support.
Terri Hogan can be reached at Terrichogan@gmail.com.
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