by Elyse Wild • photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick
Smith is perched on a piano bench, the lone soul on the floor of the towering sanctuary in the iconic Fountain Street Church. Her fingers glide across the keys and coax a chirping tune from a Steinway baby grand, joyful music fills the sweeping room; she appears to be the nucleus to which all objects in the sanctuary are drawn to by the delightful force of her piano song. After a minute, the music stops. Smith smiles and peers through her glasses at the photographer in the choral balcony and says,“Did you get what you needed?”
In just those few moments it is made abundantly clear: She is a legend.
When Smith speaks about her life, her sentences are punctuated by a robust chuckle, as if she is sharing a joke with herself, or more likely, as if moments of pure joy from her past are suddenly bursting forth.
“I grew up in a time where everyone had a piano at home,” she expressed. “I was pretty much surrounded by music at home.”
Smith’s childhood brimmed with jazz via her father’s abundant record collection. As a young girl of five, she fell in love with the sounds of infamous musical acts Nat King Cole and the King Cole Trio and Slam Stewart.
“I loved it,” she laughed. “I thought everyone listened to that kind of music.”
At the elementary school Smith attended, Henry School, students participated in group piano lessons taught by a woman named Marjorie Chase.
Her parents knew she was interested (“I would poke around on the piano at home until they got tired of hearing it.”), and booked her private lessons with Chase when she was just seven years old.
Smith describes the thrill of arriving at her teacher’s grand old house on Washington street in Heritage Hill, where she would sit in front of an upright choir piano for her weekly lesson.
“She was a very gentle teacher,” Smith recalled. “She didn’t require me to memorize things for recitals.”
Smith says Chase’s tender approach to teaching helped her cultivate an immediate and deep love for the instrument and the art of playing it.
“I just loved it to pieces,” she smiled.
In 8th grade, after six years of weekly lessons, Chase sent Smith to her teacher, Ms. Courtland. Again, Smith’s memories of these formative lessons are tied to the setting in which they took place: The waiting room of Courtland’s home, located on Cherry Street, was lined with 8×10 black and white headshots of professional musicians with whom she had known and worked.
As a gifted and ripening young musician, Smith learned from Courtland not to feel intimidated by music that was “right for her hands.”
“She worked me like no one else,” Smith laughed. “She really challenged me and it ended up being absolutely a good thing.”
Smith took weekly lessons from Courtland until her junior year of college at Aquinas, where she acted as choir accompanist and sang while earning a bachelor’s degree in French Language and a certificate in teaching.
It was during this time that the theatre began to creep into her life—and her heart. Her father was a bartender at the Rowe Hotel— a towering building located on the corner of Monroe and Michigan that dates back to 1923 and once hosted President Kennedy—which happened to be where then recently-founded theatre troupe Circle Theatre held their performances. Smith’s father would often serve the actors their post-performance drinks, returning home with free tickets for her and her friends.
“They had just wonderful productions,” she recalled.
An actor she came to know through being a frequent audience member at the Circle Theatre shows got her on the prop crew for a production of “Bells are Ringing.”
“I thought, ‘Yes! Good Lord, I will do anything,” Smith expressed.
Smith was immediately taken with the comradery of the theatre and was captivated by the talent and dedication that goes into creating a successful production. After her first summer in the prop department at Circle Theatre ended, she went on to work at Civic Theatre in the winter doing props for “The King and I.” It was there she met friend, mentor and long-time director of Civic Theatre Paul Dreher and his wife, casting director Maureen Fahey-Dreher.
Prior to Civic, the building at 30 Division Ave housed The Majestic Theatre, where African-American theatre-goers where segregated to the third floor balcony, looking down upon the very stage where Smith would one day perform.
When Dreher discovered Smith was no novice on the ivory keys, he asked her to accompany a children’s production, which evolved into her playing for full productions, something she still does to this day.
“At Civic, we are such an ensemble now,” Smith expressed. “We play off each other and keep our eyes on the conductor and our eyes on the instrument.”
Live accompaniment is essential to the success of a production, and musicians who can read the actors, anticipate the script and flow with on-stage errors are crucial.
“Unless you understand ensemble playing, you can’t do that kind of work,” Smith explained. “You must understand that actors make mistakes and then you leap ahead. You just keep listening. ”
Smith’s command of the keys is renowned; Fahey-Dreher attests to her ability to meet the challenge of playing for live productions.
“She is the best,” Fahey-Dreher expressed. “She makes it all work, and she really gets it.”
Fahey-Dreher describes Smith as an asset beyond her abilities at the piano.
“Mary Lou isn’t just a musician,” she said. “She is an actor and a singer. She is honest, brilliant, passionate and an absolute joy.”
In fact, Smith says the only department with which she has no experience is make-up. Along with her initiation into the theatre through the prop department, she ran lighting boards and acted in productions such as “A Raisin in the Sun,” “A Day of Absence” and “The Crucible,” among others.
While she was building an impressive career in local theatre by night, by day she taught kindergarten for Grand Rapids Public Schools. She balanced a schedule of working full time while fulfilling her responsibilities to the theatre during production, a challenge met by many community theatre workers. She laughs as she recalls grading papers in her dressing room during productions
“I’m amazed at the energy we had,” she said. “We loved it so much; it was worth it.”
When Smith is asked about her favorite productions she has worked on, she rattles off a long list — “Sweeney Todd”, “The Fantasticks,” “Celebration,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Brigadoon,” “Chorus Line”— with one 2017 standing out in particular.
“[Civic Theatre’s production of] ‘Ragtime’,” she expressed. “Partly because there is so much piano in it, but we did it this year after the election. It’s a show that deals with immigrants, women’s issues and discrimination, and we could really feel it hit the audience. We were really proud of it.”
The production of “Ragtime” was awarded Outstanding Musical at the 2017 Grand Awards, an annual event that honors local theatre in Grand Rapids.
In addition to her life on stage and in the symphony pit, Smith is an accomplished choir singer. A member of Fountain Street Church since the age of 10, she began singing with their junior choir and today continues to sing with the Fountain Street Church
Choir. In the ’80s, while she was serving on the symphony board, she joined the Grand Rapids Symphony Choir and has been a dedicated member ever since.
“It is such a thrill to do something with a group of people,” she said of her choir experience.
For Smith, the elation of applause has never wavered.
“When you see the look on people’s faces, you can tell they’ve had an absolutely wonderful time,” she laughed. “It’s such a good feeling. I love applause — always tickles me.
As Smith describes her unparalleled and ongoing run as a musician, singer and member of community theatre, she is also inadvertently telling part of Grand Rapids’ history with the earned authority of a diligent historian. From working alongside actors who went on to perform on the stages of New York to the milestones of Civic Theatre, Circle Theatre and Fountain Street Church, she has seen it all.
“I really do think of her as a historian,” Fahey-Dreher divulged. “She knows so much, not just about local theatre but about our city as a whole. We are really that much more fortunate to have her in our community.”
Smith is driven by an unwavering love of all-things musical and theatre, from the nooks of the prop department to the crannies of the dressing rooms to the acoustics of the symphony pit. She glows with pride as she speaks not of her lone accomplishments but those of the production teams, of the talented actors, musicians and directors she has been honored to work with, and of the friendships that can only be forged from working together to conjure a show to life and enchant an audience.
“It has been a source of amazement, friendships which have lasted forever.”