Mama, a Rainbow: Tribute to a Mentor

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

The idea began with my dearest friend, Dorothy Boxhorn.  She proof reads columns for Waukesha, Wisconsin historian, John Schoenknecht.  She suggested that he might do a column about Conne Smith and Par-Cay Players, the children’s theater company she founded in 1963.  I was one of “Conne’s kids” who went on to have a life in the theater, and by no means the only one nor the most successful.  When John decided to write the column, I agreed to assist in any way I could.

The first thing I did was to launch a Par-Cay Players Facebook page.  Within two days we had over 100 members, everyone eager to share memories, not only with John for his column but with one another as well.  Of course we were all delighted to reconnect after so many years.  I was going back to Waukesha last summer to visit my sister, Terry, Dorothy and other friends.  Many of the old gang still reside in the area so I proposed a mini-reunion.  That’s all it took.  

Krissy would be coming in from Curaçao, Timothy from LA, Allegra from Kansas City, Danny from Paris, Monica from Connecticut, Patrick and Craig from NYC, Elise from Alaska and so on.  Conne’s son and daughter, Bill and Joey, would be coming in from, respectively, Virginia and Florida.  It became clear that the reunion would not be “mini.”  And with all of this talent pouring into town, I impulsively thought, shouldn’t we put on a show?

I proposed the idea of a one-performance concert tribute to Conne that would benefit Waukesha Civic Theater, of which Conne was a founding member and where many of us had trod its boards back in the day.  Everyone piled on with enthusiasm.  I even managed to drag in my wholehearted sister, an accomplished businesswoman who hadn’t been onstage in…what?...four decades?  I took the idea to theater’s Managing Artistic Director, John, and he was all over it, giving me a firm date for the performance.  Now all we needed was a show.

“Conne-Mama” was how she was known when we were kids and it brought to mind a wonderful song from the little-known musical, Minnie’s Boys, about the Marx Brothers and their mother.  “Mama, a Rainbow” was a staple audition song for young guys back in the 1970s, including me.  The show had starred…wait for it…Shelley Winters.  I mean, who would miss a Shelley Winters musical?  Still, it was a flop but the song lived on.  (Incidentally, I directed a production of the musical at Waukesha High School not long after it had closed on Broadway in 1970.  A wonderful experience and the kids loved doing it. Heads up, high school drama directors.)

Great – I had a title for the concert and a song for the finale.  Now all I needed was the show itself.  I knew it would be comprised of songs from shows that Conne had directed, and some she had written for us as well, interspersed with heartfelt recollections from those of us who knew and loved her, which was everyone.  Those who couldn’t be there would send in video testimonials.  Where possible, those from her original casts would recreate their original performances. The challenge, aside from putting together a show from 1,000 miles out of town, was determining whom could do what.  A singer who sounded like a million bucks in 1969 may not sound the same in 2015.  I had several friends from the old days I’d kept up with and knew were still on their game, and upon whose talents I could depend to qualify as entertainment.  As for the others, jump ball.  What was I to do?  Hold Skype auditions?  There were those who said, “Oh yeah, I still sound great.”  And I’d think to myself, “I’ll be the judge of that.”  Deborah told me, “Oh no, I don’t sing anymore.”  She has been a professional actor all her life and I didn’t trust her humility.  Sure enough, at the first rehearsal it became clear that, in fact, she could still sing wonderfully.

Our first of only two rehearsals, the Saturday before the Sunday performance, was quite an emotional reunion.  Most in our company of 34 had not seen one another in over 40 years.  We got down to business and by some miracle, I’d chosen the right people for the right numbers.  Everyone was up on their material, as I had asked them to be.  By the end of that six-hour rehearsal I had staged all but one of the numbers, which I would tackle at the top of the following day’s rehearsal.  I by no means did it all on my own.  Janet, Elise and Jenni had worked up and staged their Godspell medley on their own, and beautifully.  Timothy, a Broadway pro, needed no input from me to be brilliant.  Allegra and Gerald required no direction to recreate their heartfelt scene from Guys and Dolls and Allegra sang “Far from the Home I Love” even more magnificently than she had 40 years before, if that was possible.  Had it not been for our brilliant music director and arranger, Paula, and our dynamic choral director, Bonnie, we’d have been nowhere.  

Following that Saturday rehearsal we threw the official reunion at Dady-Oh’s restaurant across the street from the theater.  More emotional reunions ensued with those who had passed on being in the show but were there for the reunion.  It’s amazing when you sit down with someone you haven’t seen in 40-odd years and it’s as if not a day has passed.  So many wonderful, often hilarious, memories of days and shows gone by, and news of marriages and breakups and kids and grandchildren and careers.  Just like any reunion, I suppose.  But it was more meaningful because we had shared not only time, but ambition and dreams and sacrifice and heart.  And for everything we had all been through during the intervening years, Conne was the common denominator that night.

We never did have a full run-thru of the entire production with all of the projections, video, lighting and so forth before the audience arrived.  But I had full confidence in our stage manager, Wendy, who had come in from Boise, to pull it off and she did.  Of course I was confident of the performers.  After all, we had been trained by Conne.  Nothing short of the theater burning down could have happened that we couldn’t handle.  Was the subsequent performance perfection?  Of course not.  Did it matter?  Of course not.  The full-house audience ate it up and it was everything we had all wished for: a heartfelt, entertaining tribute to the woman who had changed our lives for the better.  I had no doubt but that Conne was watching over us every step of the way.  There could be no other explanation for how magically it all came together.

“That’s the Mama I’ll always see.  That’s for Mama, with love from me.”