In 1991, I was working at an ABC Affiliate WBRC-TV in Birmingham, Alabama and my boss and I were on a business trip to NY to help rev up the National Salespeople on the new fall shows. After a long, long three days of meeting advertising buyers and making the same presentation over and over again, he and I decided we needed to be entertained for a change and would see a Broadway Show. Les Miz, Phantom, and Cats had been running for many years and although I loved them, I had seen each a dozen times, again, taking advertising buyers as clients previously. I wasn’t having any of that. I wanted something new!
Bill and I researched a handful of shows and he found out that one of them starred Rebecca Luker who grew up in Birmingham. Small world! Easy decision…let’s go see The Secret Garden. This was when you could still get good seats just by walking up to the box office window…ah yes, remember those days?
The Secret Garden received incredible reviews for both Rebecca Luker and Mandy Patinkin, of course, and there were praises galore for the 12-year-old Daisy Egan, who played Little Orphaned Mary. We bought great seats in the third row center aisle (no additional service fees either as I recall!) and for two plus hours I sat mesmerized while Rebecca and Mandy hit high notes into the stratosphere, and Daisy as Mary tugged at my heart throughout the show. When the show was over, both Bill and I leapt to our feet in a standing ovation; luckily the entire audience joined in soon after. It is truly one of those nights in the theatre that I will recall for a very, very long time. Like a bunch of teenager groupies, he and I went to the side stage door and asked if we could see Rebecca Luker using the phrase, We are from Birmingham, Alabama – like that would somehow magically give us credibility and we would certainly be allowed backstage. And guess what…we were!
I probably need to remind people that this was way before 911, before scary paparazzi, and before groupies would ever think of becoming dangerous or a threat. Just a time when a fan could express their gratitude for a job well done. All I wanted to do was to meet her, let her know that we will spread the word of her performance in Birmingham (the parameter of our world at the time), and of course get her autograph as proof we met. We were led into a back dimly lit hallway and then into a waiting room which seemed to be adjacent to the dressing rooms. We could see some props that were used in the show on shelves, all neatly labelled, and in order for the next day’s show.
There were people everywhere running by us. Some were cast members with coats and flowers or holding shopping bags from a local food store just up the block. Some others were walking their bikes down the hall and out the same door we entered. I thought, what a crazy life! Those people just sang their hearts out and they are now heading out onto the busy hectic NY streets on their bikes at 11p? Then Daisy Egan, my Mary, walked by us but she looked so different. Her hair was normal and she was wearing blue jeans and gym shoes, hardly recognizable as Mary. My Mary. Both Bill and I smiled and she smiled back. I said, You were terrific! Daisy said, Thank you. Did you like the show? And I can’t exactly recall what Bill and I answered her. We both were stumbling over the right words to say, interrupting each other to the point where all three of us just laughed. Daisy said, Well, that says it all doesn’t it? Again we laughed. She signed our programs, thanked us for coming to the show, and smiled as she walked away. 12 years old? She was very much a young lady, poised, articulate, and confident. I believe I yelled the loudest when she won the Tony Award for her performance that year! My Mary…like I discovered her or something!
Then as if she was Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, Rebecca, excuse me, make that THE Rebecca Luker appeared in a what looked like a hazy aura around her – No exaggeration! It was from the overhead lights. – and she introduced herself to us! Huh? We know who you are! She couldn’t have been nicer. Or more beautiful. Or more normal, down to earth. We gushed about her performance, she asked about Birmingham and how much she missed Johnny Rays’ BBQ, Coconut Cream Pie, and Sweet Tea. I explained that I just moved from Chicago to Birmingham for work but already I have become a regular at Johnny Rays! (They do make the best Coconut Cream Pie if you ever get that way.) She signed our programs and hugged us goodbye. Serious crush time…don’t tell my wife! Bill and I talked about that performance, being backstage, the entire night for at least a year. It is a great memory!
Now, fast forward, 25 years later, I am back in Chicago, and I find myself in a position of opening my own theatre company. Small world? I launched Lake Forest Theatre on April 1, 2016 (yes I realize the irony of that day!) and so what better musical to kick off our Inaugural Season than with The Secret Garden! We posted auditions in all the local websites and on Facebook of course too. Incredibly, we had hundreds of people sign up for the possible 24 roles. There is amazing talent in Chicago…in all ages! I could have cast this show four times over!
Throughout the rehearsal process, as I was directing, I often thought back to how I felt when seeing The Secret Garden that first night some 25 plus years ago. The best way I could describe Lily (Rebecca Luker) was that Lily doesn’t walk. She floats on air. She is the calm before, during, and after the storms. Literally. Our amazing cast, 15 piece Orchestra, and so helpful and creative production staff really worked together like an Olympic Team to make our first show in our first season the best it could be. We opened on June 10th and ran for four weeks to incredible critical acclaim. We even had a few groupies of our own, handful of people saw the show more than five times! I named them The Secret Gardeners and realize now I should have gotten them t-shirts! Everyone worked so hard on this production and I couldn’t be more proud of this show and everyone involved in its success.
Happy 25th Anniversary to The Secret Garden…and to my Secret Garden Memory!