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Bridgeport native acted on Broadway, founded theater museum

Helen M. GuditisBridgeport native who went act Broadway founded ran  Theatre Museum New York. | Provided photo

Helen M. Guditis,a Bridgeport native who went on to act on Broadway and founded and ran the Theatre Museum, in New York. | Provided photo

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Updated: January 15, 2013 11:21AM

Helen Guditis had a way about her.

Just ask New York City real estate titan Douglas Durst.

Ms. Guditis was determined to establish a museum about Broadway theater and its history and traditions, like the “Gypsy Robe” that gets passed down to generations of performers in different musicals.

When Ms. Guditis approached Durst about starting the museum, “I had no intention of getting involved,” he said.

But she convinced him.

“We spent $100,000 on a study to find a permanent spot for the museum,” Durst said. “And it was 20 years ago, when $100,000 could still buy a good study. She brought a determination and an ability to convince people to do things.”

Ms. Guditis, 67, a native of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood who went to Broadway to be an actress and ultimately founded The Theatre Museum in New York, died of cancer Dec. 3 at the Columbia, S.C., home of her brother, Albert John Guditis.

She was humming show tunes just before she died, her brother said.

She grew up in the cradle of Chicago’s Lithuanian community, attending schools run by the no-nonsense Sisters of St. Casimir: St. George’s, the Midwest’s first Lithuanian elementary school, which used to be near 33rd and Halsted, and Maria High School, at 67th and California.

Her two Lithuanian grandfathers had tough jobs that often fell to immigrants. Her mother’s father worked in the Stockyards in the dirty, cruel, unregulated era described by muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair in

The Jungle . Her father’s father was a coal miner who married her grandmother after paying for her passage from Vilnius to Wheeling, W.Va. — sight unseen.

Her father, Albert, worked as a detailer at an Auburn Cord Duesenberg automotive dealer at 23rd and Michigan. Her mother, also named Helen, graduated from Loyola University in 1937 as a nurse.

Helen Guditis was bitten by the theater bug when she appeared in plays, including “Camelot” at Maria High School, before going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama from Marquette University, her brother said.

During a high school job at WLS-AM, Ms. Guditis’ determination to make it in the theater impressed radio host Norman Ross. He helped her get a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

After returning from New York, she went on to get a master’s in fine arts from Northwestern University, her brother said.

The family’s Bridgeport connections came in handy after she graduated. Mayor Michael Bilandic “was able to get her involved in Theater on the Lake,” her brother said.

She moved back to New York City, where she landed parts in Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. Ms. Guditis also worked as a school teacher from 1985 to roughly 1999, her brother said, giving classes in speech and drama to students in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

“She would get them in to Broadway plays,” he said. “She would take them to museums.”

After her fiance died of cancer, she threw herself into founding the Theatre Museum, becoming its president. It operates from an administrative office and mounts exhibitions with other institutions.

“She helped organize our annual fund-raising event, put together the exhibits that we did, panel discussions,” said Broadway producer Stewart Lane, the museum’s chairman, the winner of five Tonys for shows including “War Horse” and “La Cage aux Folles.”

She also did grant-writing and interviewed Broadway veterans to compile their stories and traditions.

“She could communicate with the actors, with the producers, the lighting people,” her brother said. “She had a lot of confidantes. She always knew the next play coming around the bend, and she knew the next bomb that was coming.”

Her work opened many doors. Her brother recalled a night when she took him to a little-known Manhattan rehearsal space.

“All the dancers from all the shows — ‘Cats,’ ‘Chicago’ — all the dancers would be warming up for their shows that night,” he recalled. “It was unbelievable.”

Ms. Guditis was unfailingly courteous and equally persistent.

“She always wrote thank-you notes, no matter how small the event,” Durst said. “There was always a note thanking you from Helen, for meeting with her or introducing her to someone.”

Services are planned Dec. 29 at Northeast United Methodist Church in Columbia, S.C. Ms. Guditis asked that any memorial donations be sent to her beloved Theatre Museum. She is also survived by her niece, Courtney Guditis Pitt, and a nephew, Jay Matthew Guditis.

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