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WTTW ‘pledge lady,’ original member of Chicago’s Teatro Vista theater company, dead of breast cancer at 60

SabrinDuarte was one smiling faces seen WTTW-Channel's pledge drives. She also acted with theater companies around Chicago was an original

Sabrina Duarte was one of the smiling faces seen on WTTW-Channel's pledge drives. She also acted with theater companies around Chicago and was an original ensemble member of Teatro Vista.

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Updated: May 29, 2014 6:08AM

Chicago doesn’t have a lot of celebrities walking around the way New York does, or Los Angeles.

But when Sabrina duArte went out for a bite or to run an errand, strangers would stop her.

“Aren’t you the pledge lady?” they’d ask.

Ms. duArte was one of the smiling on-air hosts who solicit donations for WTTW. She also acted with a wide range of Chicago theater groups.

She died last month at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after an eight-year struggle with breast cancer. She was 60.

As recently as December, she worked on a Channel 11 pledge drive. No one at the station even knew she was sick.

Ms. duArte, a granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Bucktown when it was mostly a Polish neighborhood. Her mother, Manuela, enrolled her in tap dancing, singing and ballet. By 10, young Sabrina was a member of the Tom Thumb Players at Devon and Western, said her sister, Terri Berkowitz.

She attended St. Hedwig grade school, Good Counsel High School and Loyola University, where she earned a theater degree.

After a stint at WMAQ-Channel 5 as a programming assistant, she joined WTTW and became an associate producer on “Sneak Previews,” the show featuring those opposing thumbs, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert and the Tribune’s Gene Siskel.

Soon, she was working on WTTW documentaries including “Making M*A*S*H,” about the long-running CBS-TV hit.

Ms. duArte also worked on “Soundstage,” Channel 11’s live musical performance show, “separating the green jelly beans from the brown jelly beans” to accommodate quirky rock band contracts and keep performers happy, said her husband, Jon Kavanaugh.

The couple met in Chicago in 1981 when Kavanaugh was with an improv troupe appearing at the Chicago Comedy Showcase. After growing up surrounded by strapping blond Scandinavians in a Minnesota town 30 miles from Fargo, N.D., he couldn’t stop looking at the 5-foot-tall, 100-pound woman with caramel skin, dark eyes and shining black hair.

“I was just mesmerized by this beautiful, well-dressed Latina coming in to this room of blue jean-clad comedy-goers,” he said.

They married in 1984. She left her day job to pursue acting. At her first commercial audition, she landed a part in a McDonald’s corporate film.

She created a traveling show for students, “Latin Legends,” featuring Aztec creation legends, Taino Indian myths from Puerto Rico and the famed Mexican ghost story “La Llorona” — “The Crying Woman.”

Around 1990, she appeared in “De Donde” — which translates roughly as “Where are you from?” — a Stage Left Theatre play about undocumented immigrants.

She also performed with theater groups including Apple Tree in Highland Park and Chicago’s Live Bait, Organic and Goodman companies.

Ms. duArte was an original ensemble member of Teatro Vista, a Latino theater company.

“Onstage, she was always so present, and you see it in her work at WTTW,” said company co-founder Henry Godinez, now resident artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre.

Godinez directed her in Lifeline Theatre’s adaptation of “Journey of the Sparrows” and said she was “very, very compelling.”

“She was a role model for young Latino women that were interested in theater and also interested in film and television,” he said.

“Beyond that, she always made sure nobody was hungry,” he said. “She would always make sure that there was food. In many ways, she was a caretaker for the company.”

At Channel 11, “She always had such a great positive attitude, and it was very infectious,” said Jerry Liwanag, the public television station’s vice president of fund-raising programming. “If her co-hosts or anyone was down, she’d help them out.”

“She was like a cheerleader,” said fellow pledge host Cheryl Hamada.

She also had a penchant for changing her name, something family and friends found endearing if a bit maddening. It seemed to be a quest for the perfect stage name. Born Mary Ann Duarte, she changed her name to Marianne, then to Jessica, after a grandmother. Then, she changed it to Sabrina Jessica duArte, lower-casing the “D” and capitalizing the “A” in her surname to emphasize her interest in the arts, and changing her first name after one of Audrey Hepburn’s signature roles.

A teasing co-worker once asked her, ‘Does Marianne know that Jessica has changed her name to Sabrina?”

She’d always answer, though, to the nickname “Duo,” said her other sister, Frances Susan Tapia.

A year ago, Ms. duArte was among the star alums who performed at Loyola University’s Mullady Theatre. “She did this presentation at the closing of the Mullady Theatre and it was entertaining and charming,” said professor emeritus Dennis Zacek, former artistic director at Victory Gardens Theater. “What she was doing was sort of reviewing her life. . . .in retrospect, her presentation was poignant, if not profound.”

“I try to treat everyone like they’re coming out of a halfway house, because you don’t know what kind of baggage they’re carrying,” Zacek said. Now, realizing she was battling cancer, “In her case, she was carrying a steamer trunk.”

She adored traveling to Mexico. During her first visit with her husband to the zocalo, or town square, in Cozumel, a man asked her to dance. “Soon, more than 20 young men lined up to take their turn dancing with this vivacious and indefatigable beauty,” her husband said in his eulogy. “Around December each year, she’d say, ‘I want to go home,’ meaning to Cozumel.”

Services have been held.


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