Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Toby Barbara Orenstein
MSA SC 3520-14919

Biography:

Toby Barbara Orenstein was born in the Bronx, New York City to Mildred and Sam Press on May 23, 1937.1As a child she recalls an immediate interest in drama. Her first role was as a pilgrim in a kindergarten play and she recounts remembering her own lines and everyone else's. From the third grade on she directed shows in school, on the playground and anywhere else she could manage to find a cast.2

Toby Orenstein’s interest in theatre was very strong from early on, and so it was unsurprising that when she auditioned for the highly selective High School of the Performing Arts in New York City she was accepted due to her honest delivery of a monologue which was said to have come from “the gut”.3 Her victory in getting into the rigorous institution was short-lived, however, because she quickly grew to dislike its lacking support system. Ms. Orenstein says of the Performing Arts school, “[It was] cut-throat competitive, not at all a nurturing environment”.4 Hence, in the middle of her junior year, she decided to transfer to a neighborhood Bronx high school, where she won best actress and directed the senior show. Leaving the High School of the Performing Arts was a tough decision, but she did gain some wisdom from the tough faculty. They decided after one evaluation that she would never be an actress, rather that she would direct or produce and this turned out to be correct as her passion soon became directing.5

After graduating from high school, Ms. Orenstein matriculated to Cortland State Teachers’ College.6  She did this due to a sincere interest in children's education but also because it seemed like a safer career choice than theater. Yet, never one to play it safe, Ms. Orenstein eventually decided to pursue her true passion and transferred to Columbia University for its theatre program. In the late 1950s Orenstein graduated from Columbia University with a B.F.A. in theatre and a minor in education.7  She immediately seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as one of twelve teachers on Eleanor Roosevelt's federal education project in Harlem called the All Day Neighborhood School Project.8 From working with Ms. Roosevelt, the young Ms. Orenstein found the inspiration necessary for her own pursuit of happiness through the excellent guidance of this legendary woman. Working on this project allowed Ms. Orenstein to nurture her interest in children's education while not losing sight of her theatre inclination through its focus in teaching children through the arts rather than traditionally. Her time there was short-lived though because, in 1959, she married her husband, Hal Orenstein, and he accepted a job in Washington DC so they relocated to the capital.9 Although she left the All Day Neighborhood School Project, the values of the program are reflected in her current non-profit children's program.

The next few years were bittersweet and trying ones for the newlywed Toby Orenstein. In 1961 her son, Jeff, was born and the next year, she lost her mother after a tough battle with lupus.10  This death led to her father’s, downward spiral into alcoholism and left Ms. Orenstein’s fifteen year old sister virtually parentless; so, she did what any older sister would and invited her to move to DC with them.11  The next year, 1963, another new addition was made to the family in the form of her second child, a daughter, Mindy. On top of all of these changes her father also moved down to the capital city, adding to the burden of the young Orenstein couple.12  With so many obligations, she stopped teaching completely and devoted herself to her family. One quote which she probably gained strength from at this time is what the former first lady told her: “A woman is like a teabag. You don’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water”.13   Ms. Orenstein showed her strength and despite all of her obstacles in these few years she continued to volunteer, directing plays at the local temple until 1965 when she was offered a position teaching drama classes and directing at Cynthia Warner's School in Takoma Park, MD.14  In addition to this position, Ms. Orenstein was also directing shows and children's drama at the Burn Brae Dinner Theatre.15

It was after a few years at this position that Toby Orenstein was asked by a friend, Jim Rouse, to create a non-profit theatrical arts school for a new Maryland city, Columbia. Thus, she combined both of her passions: theatre and education and the result was the Columbia Center for the Arts (CCTA) in 1974.16  Created with a mission to “educate through the arts by creating theatrical experiences that ‘inspire thought, action, creativity, and change’” the program still thrives today.17  The CCTA was created with an original outlook on education and has three distinct departments that meet the goals it has committed itself to meet. It offers conservatory, theatrical arts productions, and outreach program departments.18 The CCTA has been a success story of Columbia and has maintained its commitment to the community through a number of incentives such as fundraising, scholarships, and producing Labor of Love an annual event which raises money for the Howard County Aids Alliance.19 Out of the CCTA sprang The Young Columbians. This was a group made up of young performers who were featured at a number of national events.20  Another inspirational project created under Ms. Orenstein’s direction at the CCTA was the Labels Project in 1992. Formed to educate young people on how to combat bias and prejudice by supporting individuality, celebrating diversity and teaching adolescents’ tactics for resisting peer pressure, it is just another example of how Ms. Orenstein seamlessly marries her two passions to the benefit of others.21 Under Orenstein’s direction, the CCTA flourished as one of Columbia’s most notable institutions.

Soon after the establishment of the CCTA Ms. Orenstein decided she was ready to take the plunge and try to start her own theater. In 1979 she approached Jim Rouse this time, the catalyst for the CCTA, and he helped her jump start this ambitious endeavor.22  Once a Virginia-based restaurant group approached her with a partnership offer on a dinner theater her dream seemed to be coming true, but she was still apprehensive about it.
 

It was Hal, who encouraged me to embark on this venture. He was so supportive. We had a son in college and a daughter in high school and financial concerns, but we just decided to do it. I took no salary for my work at the school. He had a good job as an economist. We did not want for anything, but we had only a small savings. The food company had the credit rating to qualify for the loan, but we still had to come up with money. We took every drop of savings we had and put it into the theater. I was scared to death. I had no idea how to run a business like this. I am the kind of person who jumps into the water and then finds out she can’t swim. My husband is the rational one.23
With encouragement from her husband, family, and countless others, Ms. Orenstein put her all into the project. She opened Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia on December 4, 1979 with a performance of Godspel. Ms. Orenstein successfully started a theatre which lacked the condescension which she faced in the performing arts world while creating an environment that was supportive, healthy, and professional for new actors.24  Since its opening in 1979, Toby’s Dinner Theatre has performed popular Broadway hits such as, West Side Story, The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Aida, Annie and many more; while it has also tried a hand at less well-known plays and even some locally-crafted musicals such as Ben Carson M.D.25

In the course of the almost 30 years of Toby’s Dinner Theatre, Ms. Orenstein has only increased her passion for directing and educating children, having worked with some major performers such as: Johnny Holliday, Edward Norton, Robin Baxter, Steve Blanchard and Mary Page Keller.26  Yet in some aspects it has been an uphill battle for Ms. Orenstein in terms of gaining respect from other members of the theatre community. The stigma attached with dinner theatre—that it is somehow pared down performances—continues to haunt her. She recognizes this sad fact, shrugging it off saying, “If I took our shows and I rented a church or a warehouse, everybody would come see it. Because it has that label—‘dinner theater’—I’m not being taken seriously”.27  Regardless of critics she opened a second branch of Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Baltimore on March 10, 2006 with a highly successful run of Beauty and the Beast.28

With the continual success at both Toby’s locations, Ms. Orenstein has gained a financial security that could allow her leisure, but instead she chooses to generously serve the community that has fostered her career’s rise. She continues to help raise funds for scholarships, social programs, for community children in her dedication to education. She has also chaired and directed the Howard County Arts Gala for the Arts Council for three years. She has contributes to events for Ben Carson’s Carson Scholars Fund. Also, Ms. Orenstein continues to give free concerts to senior citizens, hospitals, community events and has also directed and produced plays for USO and the military troops overseas.29

 Facing numerous setbacks in life, Toby Orenstein’s story exemplifies the outcome of truly pursuing and dedicating oneself to a dream. Hers is, beyond doubt, a sensational story but she maintains that her victorious career pales in comparison to her greatest achievements which are maintaining a long marriage with her husband, Hal, and raising her two children, Jeffrey and Mindy.30

 Indeed, when people ask her what her hobbies are she says, “I am one of the lucky ones whose hobby is also her career. How many people can say that their work is also their passion?”31

Awards & Recognition32
1985: Voted Columbian of the Year by Columbia Magazine
1990: Howie Award for outstanding contributions to the Arts in Howard County
1996: Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Director of a Musical
1996: Business Volunteer of the Year, Howard County
1996-99: Voted Best of Baltimore by Baltimore Magazine for Toby’s Dinner Theatre
1998: Outstanding Women by the State Board of Education for creativity and enriching the lives of people in Maryland
1997: Aids Alliance Community Recognition Award for 10 years of service, support and guidance
2001: Featured in the book: Lives in Arts: Sixteen Women Who Changed Theatre in Baltimore
2001: Selected Honorary Chair for Howard County Arts Gala
2002: Named to Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame
2003: Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical, Jekyll and Hyde; Maryland’s Top 100 Women, The Daily Record
2004: National Education Association Summer Assessment Grant
2005: Outstanding Service to Educational Theatre, Maryland Theatre Association
2007: Marylander of Distinction, Maryland Life Magazine
2008: Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, Maryland Commission for Women

Footnotes

1. Linda Shevitz, "2008 Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Nomination Form," Maryland Commission for Women, 2007. Return to text
2. Maravene  Loeschke, Lives in Art: Sixteen Women Who Changed Theatre in Baltimore. (n.pub., n. pl., 2001),  45.  Return to text
3. Ibid., 46. Return to text
4. Ibid. Return to text
5. Ibid. Return to text
6. Ibid., 47. Return to text
7. Ibid. Return to text
8. Ibid. Return to text
9. Ibid. Return to text
10. Ibid. Return to text
11. Ibid. Return to text
12. Ibid. Return to text
13. Janene Holzberg, "Honoring a Commitment to Children and Theatre; Neighbors," The Baltimore Sun, 28  March 2008. Return to text
14. Loeschke, 48. Return to text
15. Ibid. Return to text
16. "Founder & Artistic Director" Founder & Artistic Director. Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, Inc. Accessed on 12 June, 2008 <http://www.cctarts.com/ccta_003.htm> Return to text
17. "About CCTA" About CCTA. Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, Inc.,  Accessed on 12 June 2008 <http://www.cctarts.com/ccta_002.htm> Return to text
18. Ibid. Return to text
19. "Founder & Artistic Director" Founder & Artistic Director. Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, Inc. Accessed on 12 June, 2008 <http://www.cctarts.com/ccta_003.htm> Return to text
20. "Toby Barbara Orenstein." Maryland Commission for Women. Maryland Women's Hall of Fame. 12 June 2008 <http://msa.md.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/orenstein.html.> Return to text
21. "The Labels Project."The Labels Project Online. Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, Inc. Accessed 12 June, 2008 <http://www.cctarts.com/ccta_014.htm> Return to text
22. Loeschke, 50. Return to text
23. Ibid. Return to text
24. Ibid. Return to text
25. "What's Playing". Toby's Dinner Theatre. <http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com/tobysbaltimore_003.htm> Return to text
26. "Q&A With Bob Levey; With Dinner Theater Director," The Washington Post, 29 July 2003. Return to text
27. Nelson Pressley, "What's for Dinner? Fine Theater; Hayes Nominations Underscore High Standards at Toby's," The Washington Post, 2 May 2004. Return to text
28. Kara Kridler, "Toby's Dinner Theatre opens second location in Baltimore Travel," The Daily Record, 21 February 2006. Return to text
29. "Toby Barbara Orenstein" Maryland Commision for Women. Maryland Women's Hall of Fame. Accessed on 12 June, 2008 <http://msa.md.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/orenstein.html> Return to text
30. "Founder & Artistic Director" Founder & Artistic Director. Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, Inc. Accessed 12 June, 2008 <http://www.cctarts.com/ccta_003.htm> Return to text
31. Holzberg. Return to text
32. Shevitz. Return to text

Biography written by 2008 summer intern Shannon Shird

Return to Toby Barbara Orenstein's Introductory Page
 
 
 
 


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