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Arts proponent dies at 78

August 17, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Dixie Donald Kilham, 78, a supporter of the arts in Jefferson County, W.Va., died at his home here on Saturday.

Friends of Kilham remembered him as a visionary, a generous, kind man who loved children and who felt a deep responsibility to contribute whatever he could to his community and individuals in need.

Kilham came to Harpers Ferry in 1955 with a dream to establish an outdoor drama about abolitionist John Brown.

In 1964, he opened a wax museum in an old house on Washington Street in the Harpers Ferry business district. The wax figures traced Brown's life from his youth to his death on the gallows.

He bought an old hotel overlooking the Potomac River and called it the Hilltop House after his Hilltop Theatre School of Arts in Baltimore. He was innkeeper at the Hilltop House from 1955 to 1987.

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For five years, Kilham put on summer theater at Hilltop House, bringing players from Baltimore to Harpers Ferry for summer theater-in-the-round productions. Some of the stars that appeared there were Ilona Massey, Raymond Massey, the Gabor sisters and James Mason.

His keen interest in people and knack for pleasing them made him a natural at running the hotel, though he had no experience when he decided to give up law to become a full-time innkeeper, said longtime friend and assistant Anita Brown.

After serving in the Air Force during World War II, Kilham got a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland Law School. He was admitted to the Maryland Bar on Aug. 3, 1949.

He had a link to the area, Brown said. His mother and father were both born in the Sandy Hook area of Washington County, she said.

Brown met Kilham in 1965, when she moved to Harpers Ferry from Maryland's Eastern Shore and went to work for him managing the Hilltop House office. She remained his assistant for the rest of his life, aiding him more with his personal affairs in the past three years because of health problems, she said.

While not a performer, Kilham loved the arts and worked to expose others to them through the performances he put on at the hotel, an annual art show and his efforts to restore the Old Opera House in Charles Town, W.Va., she said.

Saving the theater

Plans were in the works to tear down the former vaudeville theater and build a parking lot, Brown said. Kilham and Robert Angel came up with a plan to renovate and refurbish the Old Opera House, and with the help of local community workers and the Job Corps, the building became an active arts center.

"The Old Opera House as we know it today wouldn't be at all if it wouldn't have been for Dixie Kilham," said former Charles Town Mayor Donald C. "Doc" Master, who considered himself a close friend.

Master said he remembers the sparkle in Kilham's eyes as they toured the condemned theater building, so deteriorated that little more than its walls were left after dozens of dump truck loads of debris were hauled away.

"We'd all look at each other and laugh," he said. "It was amazing to see the glitter and the smile on his face as he would portray what the future of the Old Opera House would be. And he was right."

One of his ideas that proved successful was to send mobile art exhibits and shows to rural areas of West Virginia that didn't have their own museums and theaters, she said.

Kilham was outgoing, with a special love for children, whom he treated to lollipops from the bowl he kept filled in his dining room, Brown said.

He had an interest in local politics, and for a long time, never missed a Harpers Ferry Council meeting, Brown said.

Kilham also liked to quietly help individuals in need, from people who needed a place to live to a child who needed braces, she said.

Old Opera House Theater Guild member Ethel Tamker remembers Kilham's generosity during the theater's long restoration process.

His reputation for generosity in the community extended far beyond that effort, Tamker said.

"He just did so much, it's hard to find a place where it stopped," she said.

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