Wallace Coberg, filmmaker

Wallace "Wally" Henry Coberg, a theatrical designer and filmmaker who was at work on a new Edgar Allan Poe documentary, died of an apparent heart attack Nov. 18 at his Bolton Hill home. He was 63.

Born in New York, N.Y, he lived in Edison, N.J., and Perrysburg, Ohio, before moving to Bel Air and graduating from Bel Air High School in 1966. He attended Boston University, Towson University and earned a degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

In a 1974 Sun interview, he said he made a construction paper set at age 8 after watching Mary Martin play "Peter Pan" on television.

"He went to the Radio City Music Hall stage door when he was about 12 and told the man at the door how interested he was in what went on in there," said a friend and former student, Mike Wicklein of Baltimore. "They let him in and he got a complete backstage tour. He was hooked. It was his dream."

Several years later, he became a Bel Air movie theater usher and later sold tickets and was a manager at old downtown Baltimore film houses, including the New, Mayfair, Hippodrome, as well as at the Towson. He became a free-lance theatrical designer and undertook numerous projects, often working out of his Bolton Hill apartment.

"He loved film and theater and was a true artist," said Mr. Wicklein. "He had the courage to follow his bliss and do the work that he loved, whether it made him financially wealthy or not. His soul was rich."

Friends said he developed a lifelong affection for historic theaters and film exhibition.

In 1972, Mr. Coberg began working and teaching at Towson University with Paul Berman, who initially hired him to design a set for a summer production of the Electric Shakespeare Company.

"He was a teacher for much of his life. It's how I met him and he was damn good at it," said Mr. Wicklein. "He taught me to be true to who you are, be good at what you do, care about others, and live without fear."

While at Towson, Mr. Coberg requested a tour of the Metropolitan Opera's set department and met Guenther Schneider-Siemmen, who hired him to be an assistant designer at a Salzburg Festival and at the Vienna State Opera in 1974.

"It's being at the right place at the right time," he said in The Sun at that time.

In the 1970s, he also worked in independent filmmaking. He worked with Rick Puller and made "The Oval Portrait," a film based upon a Poe short story. They also made other short films, "Rappacini's Daughter" and "Incident."

"Wally Coberg was among Baltimore's most devoted and passionate cineastes," said a friend, Frank Rehak of Baltimore. "His credo was always collaboration, hence the deep respect he enjoyed among his numerous colleagues."

Mr. Coberg's biography notes that he later worked with the Louisville Ballet and the New York City, Virginia, Baltimore and Boston opera companies. He created a set in 1995 for a traveling production featuring Roddy McDowall in "Dial 'M' for Murder" and had credits for ice show productions of Walt Disney's "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast." He also worked in Las Vegas, and in theme parks at Busch Gardens Tampa and Williamsburg and at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Hollywood.

In 1981, he designed a critically praised set for "Much Ado About Nothing" at Center Stage.

"Wally was a tireless working artist who was very effective as a designer," said Donald Hicken, head of theater at the Baltimore School for the Arts. "He created a gorgeous, sumptuous set based on a detailed model he made."

Mr. Coberg also worked with the Becker Group on Christmas decorations for shopping centers and on marquee designs for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico City productions of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

At his death, he was working on "The Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe" and had received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for it.

According to his biography, he was also at work on a documentary, "Popcorn Palaces, The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of America's Historic Movie Theatres."

"At the time of his death Wally was by his own proclamation the happiest he had ever been in his life," said his sister-in-law, B.J. Coberg of Fallston. "He had found new love and purpose and will be remembered by all who loved him for a contagiously unbridled passion for life and his work."

Survivors include his brother, Donald Coberg of Fallston; a nephew and two nieces.

A memorial celebration is planned for the next year.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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