| October 1, 2009
Steel Magnolias presented by La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts & McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Opens Oct. 3; plays Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 pm; Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 & 8 pm; Sun., 2 & 7 pm; through Oct. 18. Tickets: $35-$50. La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. 562.944.9801 or lamiradatheatre.com
A NEW TRAMPOLINE FOR RIGBY
“And Peter Pan chose this particular house because there were people here who believed in him.”Â Â Â Â Â Â –Narrator, Peter Pan
So I’m standing in my kitchen talking to my 79 year old sister Marge and the phone rings. It’s Cathy Rigby. I head upstairs for privacy and Marge stops me all quiet and sweet. That’s a surprise. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything…can you tell her, I’m a fan?” Bigger surprise. I start back up the stairs and it dawns on me. I turn and ask, “Who of, the gymnast or Peter Pan?” “The gymnast!” she yells. “That girl put us on the map. I remember.”
Hilarious, I thought as I went to my call. My crusty New England sister is a fan of this La Mirada icon. I guess Southern Californians just take her for granted.
Brothers and sisters have such an effect on each other. Who knows? Cathy Rigby may never have been two-time Olympian Cathy Rigby without her brother. She was all about ballet at seven when Steve came home from the youth center and said, “They have a trampoline down there. You wanna go jump on it?” She did.
“I went into the youth center,” Rigby says, “and felt like I found my place in the world. I wanted to be there. I was a very active little kid, and started gymnastics.” She had the coach dueling with the father who built her first balance beam in the backyard.
“When the ’68 Olympics came up, I hadn’t paid any attention to it at 15. I tried out and placed fifth out of the top six and went to the Olympics. Then came the ’70 World Championships, and I won a medal.” It was the first for an American in gymnastics–male or female-ever.
She was the pioneer and worked tirelessly in and out of competition.Â But, after numerous international medals, eight of them gold, “America’s Sweetheart of Gymnastics” had done enough and retired at 19. “I was burned out about anything that I could be judged for. I just wanted to get married and have kids.”
Not a bad desire for a woman later to play uber mom M’Lynn Eatenton in Steel Magnolias. Rigby did soon marry after gymnastics to football star Tommy Mason. They had two boys, Buck and Ryan, and Rigby started her theatre career in an arena version of Peter Pan. “It was almost like a Disney on Parade,” she says. The singing was lip-synched to someone else’s voice but the acting and acrobatics were all her.
She started singing lessons and “found the voice is like any other muscle in your body. If you work it out, it gets better, stronger.” Also, after retirement, she started her association with ABC Sports where she was a featured commentator for 18 years.
In 1981 her first marriage dissolved. Rigby returned to the stage as Dorothy in the Sacramento Music Circus’ The Wizard of Oz and a year later she married Tom McCoy, her Tin Man in that show.
“It was love at first sight,” she recalls. “He got me out of my shell. He was unafraid of anything….the kid in high school who asked the shy girl on the bench to dance. He became my best friend, love of my life, and an amazing father to my sons from my first marriage.” He was also responsible for helping her end a 12-year struggle with bulimia.
All important credentials for the man who, together with his wife, would form a family which included two more children–their daughters Theresa and Kaitlin-and McCoy Rigby Entertainment. When asked about the billing, she had a simple answer: “I love him.” When pressed: “Well, he does the budgets, contracts and producing. Anybody who does that should go first. I got the easy part.”
1981 was a good year for Rigby. After meeting McCoy, she starred in Paint Your Wagon with Gordon MacRae. “In that show I found the spark of theatre. It’s a real team effort, not just me up there. In gymnastics, I was more rigid emotionally and would have to shut down, or I’d be terrified.
“Theatre is very different. It’s about other people and what they’re feeling, and rediscovering who you are. It saved my life. It allowed me to become me, not just this little machine who could do tricks on the balance beam. It was the same as when I was a little kid, discovering what I loved. I found that child again.”
Speaking of finding children, remember these two?
“Peter: Oh, the cleverness of me.
Wendy: Of course, I did nothing…
Peter: You did a little.”
Ironic that in our case Peter is the girl, Wendy is the boy. They did grow up and marry. And, Peter got his kiss.
In the late 1980s, on the heels of Tom McCoy producing the Pope at the LA Coliseum, McCoy Rigby launched their first national tour of Peter Pan. It was set to be a three-month gig. “Odd, because that schedule wouldn’t have paid the show’s money back,” Rigby admits. They arrived at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. In anticipation, one leading critic sniffed, “It’ll be like Mark Spitz doing Man of La Mancha.”
The show opened. The producer stood up on a chair at the opening night party and read the Sniffer’s review. It was so great they got a two-year tour out of it. Rigby called Addison DeWitt to thank him, starting with, “People probably don’t call you to… ” “NOBODY calls me!” was the response.
The rest is history. Rigby ended up following in Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan’s footsteps playing Peter Pan on Broadway. In 1991, she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Peter returned there again in 1999 and was nominated for Best Revival of a Musical.
Her stage accomplishments are not limited to the boy with no shadow. With seven years of voice/acting training and 12 in ballet, she is a favorite for just about any musical, including her turns in Annie Get Your Gun, Meet Me in St. Louis, South Pacific, They’re Playing Our Song, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and, again on Broadway, in Seussical the Musical.
As reported in Backstage, her Cat-in-the-Hat from that show “charms the children in the audience with her clever, impish ways and wows everyone with her captivating playfulness and soaring song stylings that literally take flight as she twists, tumbles and whirls her way through Seussical skies.”
In 2004, the League of American Theatres and Producers voted her the National Broadway Theatre Distinguished Lifetime Service Award. “I’ve been in theatre since 1981,” says Rigby, “and have toured with so many of these producers.” In this case, familiarity bred respect.
McCoy Rigby Entertainment has also thrived. In 1994, after presenting their case to the City Council and being approved, McCoy and Rigby assumed the responsibilities as executive producers at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. This allowed them to produce first-class theatrical productions there as possible springboards for national and other mini tours.
According to Rigby, “This way we can mount a show on a cost contract, like a tryout. Then, if we want to tour, we can put the actors on a production contract.Â This drew people from LA and allowed us to build very nice sets and costumes, and eventually take the shows out to other theatres like the Laguna Playhouse, Welk Resorts Theatre or even the new theatre they’re building in Riverside. That helps share the costs.
“I’m lucky I have this platform. There’s a following here and I know many of our patrons. But in 18 years, I’ve only been in eight shows because many times I’m on tour and just can’t do it. The older I get though, the harder it is to tour. I say to myself, ‘Oh, God, do I really want to tote my bags around again?'”
Cathy Rigby, Amy Sloan and Michael Learned in Steel Magnolias
She won’t have to tote far for Robert Harling’s 1987 play Steel Magnolias.Â It already has a contract beyond La Mirada at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido which serves the San Diego area. (It opens Jan.7, 2010 for a three week run.) Wait a minute, back up. Steel Magnolias and Cathy Rigby? No flying boy, no girl with a gun, no feisty feline? Just a mom? “It’s the first time people will see me do this type of role onstage,” she says. “But, it’s more like my real life. With four kids and three grandkids, the chapters just flow together now.”
All four of her children are somewhere in the biz, three of them in her biz. Buck, 33, is a general manager for McCoy Rigby Entertainment; Theresa, 26, does the contracts and finance work; Kaitlin, 24, works in lighting design, crew and also performs. Ryan, 29, dances with a professional company in Germany.
Like her character M’Lynn in Magnolias, Rigby’s also a new grandmother. Like M’Lynn, she understands firsthand from her own struggle (with bulimia) “the consequences of not paying attention to the disease.” She says, “As a parent, you have to allow people to live their lives as best you can and not be controlling. You’re supposed to anyway but with (stage daughter) Shelby…she needs to hear what I’m saying. It’s very scary when she doesn’t.”
So, is Steel Magnolias, the comedy worth crying over, a new direction for Rigby’s career? In answer, she quotes Brian Kite, her director and the Artistic Director of La Mirada Theatre, “There are choices you make and choices life makes for you. You think you make a plan but sometimes your life partner is the person standing next to you in the grocery line.”
Maybe the new direction is also the McCoy Rigby Conservatory for the Arts in Yorba Linda where she and others teach over 600 children about stage. “I look at these kids and remember. You see the light bulb go off. They don’t have to have the best voice but they work their heads off, and you see the passion. It’s great. Is it selfish to love that?”
As my sister Marge said, “Tell her I’m a fan.”
COMEDY IS LEARNED’S FAVORITE FORTE
“Don’t play style, play the truth. It’s funnier.” –Francis Ford Coppola
It is funny how we think of Michael Learned all serious in a bonnet or a nurse’s cap or some judge’s robe when actually, it was from comedy she was discovered big time… onstage.
Her origins are theatre and she’s never left. Born in Washington, D.C., she soon moved to a farm in Connecticut, later to a small Austrian town, then to an English boarding/ballet school where she learned to love theatre and dance.
Dad traveled. Dad was a diplomat or Dad was a baker, or… Actually, Dad was CIA. “For a long time, I couldn’t tell people that but now I can,” Learned says. “You have a scoop! I deeply respect my father and how patriotic he was.”
But still, she got stuck milking goats and carrying slop on a farm and being desperately homesick in a one-horse, two-car town in Austria. “I was a very depressed and hormonal 11 or 12 year old there so I was sent to England to ballet school and later to study at London Day School.”
Her grandmother sent for her one summer and got her into the Stratford Festival in Connecticut at the under-age of 16 going on 30. There she met and worked with the likes of Raymond Massey, Christopher Plummer and, among other luminaries, Peter Donat. She and Peter married when she was 17 and started their family of three sons: Caleb, Christopher and Lucas.
They eventually settled in Donat’s native Canada where his career took hold. They acted together in a lot of classics on the CBC but, she says, “I was basically Peter Donat’s wife. It’s the man who had the career. I always put Housewife on my passport.”
Then, American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco called. “Bill Ball wanted Peter and to sweeten the pot he took me.” The family left for the States. “This time, I put Actress on my passport. The early years at ACT were incredible. We’re all still bonded.”
It was there she and Donat performed in the comedy Private Lives by Noel Coward. The director “was a genius,” she says. “But, he was also working on a movie. He was coming down off a commercially disappointing film and going away from time to time to edit his new one. So while he was away, Paul and I changed blocking and everything back to the way we wanted it. Such arrogance!
“He’d come back, driving his beat-up VW, and say ‘This is shit, put it back.’ And, he was always right. He understood the process. Sometimes in rehearsal, he’d stop it saying ‘Nothing’s going on here. Let’s go get sushi.’ Then, he’d tell us, ‘Don’t play style, play the truth. It’s funnier’.”
They did and it was a hit. The director was Francis Ford Coppola and the movie he was editing was The Godfather. “Who knew then?” exclaims Learned.
Private Lives drew the attention of Hollywood casting director Ethel Winant who went regularly to ACT. She was head of casting for CBS. She wanted Learned for a new TV show based on The Homecoming-A Christmas Story starring Andrew Duggan and Patricia Neal which was based on the film Spencer’s Mountain with Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. Scary.
Learned thought so. She was going through a divorce with Donat and “driving to LA to learn the freeways. I was staying in a motel for $12 a night, weeping over my divorce. My agent David Graham pushed me. I told him, ‘I’m not right, I’m too young.’
“They wanted me to ‘test.’ To do that, I’d have to sign a contract. Bill Ball wouldn’t let me out of Private Lives unless Francis could find a replacement. God bless Marsha Mason who said she’d done the part before (she hadn’t) and they let me out.
“I went into CBS…never auditioned really. I was 32 years old with short blonde hair. They wanted a woman in her 40s with red hair. They put a bowl hat on my head and shoved me in front of a camera. I grabbed hold of Richard (Thomas) and Ralph (Waite), and I got it.
“I guess if it has your name on it, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. There’s so much luck in this profession.” Luck possibly in the form of Winant who “went to bat because Fred Silverman didn’t want me. Ethel convinced him they better have me.”
As for Patricia Neal who originally starred in The Homecoming, which was the pilot for The Waltons, “she’s still very much a part of the Walton family. Nobody can compare to her performance. They told me it was too taxing for her to do after her strokes. She later told me they never offered it to her. She’s a real broad. A great woman. We’re friends.Â She has so much energy, still cruises all over the world.”
Olivia Walton proved to be in the excellent hands of this theatre actress and newcomer to television. Learned was nominated for six Emmys and won three for the role she played for eight years. She did not renew her contract for seasons nine and ten so her character was sent away with developing tuberculosis.
“There was no place for them to go with Olivia. And, I was tired,” says Learned. Soon though, CBS called again wanting her to play the lead character Mary Benjamin opposite Robert Reed in the hospital drama Nurse. The series ran two seasons. She was nominated twice and took home the Emmy for Lead Dramatic Actress in the last season of the show.
Other series followed like Hothouse and the comedy Living Dolls. On the mention of Hothouse, Learned exclaims with excitement, “Such a good show! Loved going to work every day. All I did was go to bed with Art Malik, that gorgeous Indian man.” He is actually Pakistani but who cares, she was having fun.
Some fun continued on Living Dolls, a short-lived comedy where Learned played Trish Carlin, owner of a modeling agency for teenage girls. The young Halle Berry was among them. “All the girls were lovely. Halle was a sweetheart and still is…very comfortable in her skin, that wonderful skin.”
Learned is seldom away from the television spotlight. Recently, she ran the gamut from Judge Helen Turner daytimes on All My Children to recurring nighttimes as Mrs. Wilk on Scrubs. She works well with the next generation. The Scrubs work was “a joy. Those producers are kind, young and hip, and a lot of fun.”
Among her favorites and most notable TV experiences though was a return to theatre. It was All My Sons by Arthur Miller on PBS, directed by ACT’s Jack O’Brien. “He was able to bring a lot of the alums together.” Starring with her were Joan Allen, Aidan Quinn and James Whitmore.
In 1993, she headed to Broadway. Director Dan Sullivan called her to play Sara Goode opposite Linda Lavin in The Sisters Rosensweig by Wendy Wasserstein who suggested Learned for the role. “Dan called and said, ‘Can you sing?’ ‘In the shower,’ I said. ‘C’mon, sing Happy Birthday.’ I did and got it.”
Again not much of an audition. “I hate auditioning!” she says. “It’s the hardest thing for me. It makes me more nervous than opening night. And, I’m pretty nervous opening night. As Liz (Elizabeth) Ashley put it, ‘I’d rather have my knees drained.'”
In 2000, Learned returned to Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man with Ashley, Christine Ebersole, Chris Noth, Charles Durning and Spalding Gray. She played his wife and expresses great affection for the late actor. “It was very much an ensemble and a smart move to put it on during the Clinton election time. It was Jeffrey Richards’ first play on Broadway. He’s the new David Merrick, only nicer.”
But, it’s Southern California theatre that occupies most of Learned’s stage time.Â Theatregoers here may be surprised to remember how many comedies and dramas they’ve seen her in over the years: Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor at the Pasadena Playhouse, Picnic and Mary Stuart at the Ahmanson, Love Letters at the Canon, The Merchant of Venice and Dancing at Lughnasa at the Old Globe, Looking for Normal at the Geffen, and A Month in the Country, Richard III and Three Tall Women at the Taper.
Edward Albee’s Women at the Taper “was a wonderful experience,” she says. “I’m telling you, every night I was riveted. In the first act especially. I had to act by listening. It was easier, of course, because I was listening to Marian Seldes but what a great exercise.”
With her extensive body of stage work still growing, you have to wonder what drives this actress of a certain age to keep trodding the boards and touring in shows. “I’ve done it all my life,” she says. “I’ve done theatre and I’ve done kids. It’s about all I know how to do. I retire when I’m not working. And when I’m working, I’m not retired!”
This, after she’s just returned from almost back-to-back tours of On Golden Pond with Tom Bosley and Driving Miss Daisy with Willis Burks II. She’s philosophical about it. “Well, I have to admit nowadays it’s harder. Y’know after you play eight performances a week and travel on the off-day, they don’t feed you on the plane. And, when you get to the hotel, the restaurant is closed.
“But, I love the family it creates through the show. Besides, I think John likes it better when I’m working, and not focusing on what he’s doing wrong.” John is John Doherty, a lawyer and her husband of 18 years.
It was Doherty who pushed Learned toward the character of Ouizer, the comic relief in Steel Magnolias. “We were driving home to LA from our cabin in Wisconsin and I was reading the play. I was taken aback by how good it was. I hadn’t seen it before.
“They asked me to play Clairee but the more I read, the more I was in love with this Ouizer. She’s blunt and outrageous. It’s her defense. She has two kids she doesn’t hear from at Christmas. You have to find things you understand about the character, love about the character.
“I didn’t want to say anything but John said, ‘Call them up and ask.’ I did and Brian Kite the director said, ‘Sure, either character is good for you.’ He had directed me in Daisy at La Mirada and I trust him. Totally.
“It’s very comfortable for me there. Cathy and Tom are theatre people and I’m a theatre rat. None of this diva stuff. It’s just like it used to be. You come, you do your work, you come home and take care of the kids.”
Her kids are grown now. And, she’s a grandmother five times over. “Kids were the best part of life for me,” she says. “Grandkids are the joy.”
And, I’m guessing, Ouizer is the fun.
Feature image of Cathy Rigby, Michael Learned,Â RosinaÂ Reynolds, Emma Fasler, Christa Jackson and (sitting) Amy Sloan by Michael Lamont
Article by Geo Hartley