The shows go on—even in July; Theater enthusiasts Rich and Mary Smyth
Photos by Stephen Gabris
If you attend theater in Buffalo, chances are good you’ve seen Rich and Mary Smyth. The couple, who met as freshmen at Buffalo State and will be married fifty years in April, worked for thirty-three years before retiring in 2001. As theater fans, they sought to use some of their newfound free time to give back to the theaters they enjoy so much. They currently volunteer at eight, which allows them to see about eighty percent of the non-Shea’s offerings in any given season.
“It all started with Todd Warfield,” Mary recalls, naming a costumer/director/set designer at Buffalo United Artists and Alleyway. “We went to see a play at Alleyway, and Todd being Todd was very friendly and welcoming, and I asked if we could get involved somehow. He took us on in 2001, right after we retired. We had a meeting and Todd said he needed somebody to [schedule] ushers. My hand went up, and I can never take that hand down.”
“Our middle name is volunteer,” adds Rich, who is also a docent at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site and gives tours through Preservation Buffalo Niagara.
Kavinoky was next, and it “bloomed from there,” Mary says. Next up was Buffalo United Artists, where Mary now runs most of the box office. Road Less Traveled, Jewish Repertory Theatre, MusicalFare, Irish Classical Theatre, and O’Connell and Company followed—but it’s not all ushering. Rich hangs posters around town for all the theaters, as well as the Pride Center of WNY. At JRT, they book and train ushers, and, at RLTP, Mary helps with reservations with ticketing software installed on her home computer.
“When I was taking calls from RLTP patrons for Motherfucker with the Hat, many people—especially women—didn’t want to give me the name of the play,” Mary laughs. “My favorites were, ‘I would like tickets for your hat play,’ and ‘I need some tickets for ‘The Gentleman with the Hat.’ Another time, I booked tickets for RLTP and the caller said he would give me the names of the other plays he wanted for the season, so I could book all the other theaters for him as well!”
Buffalo Spree: How did you first become theater fans?
MARY: We always loved it. We used to go to New York and see theater when our budget and family could fit it in. We were never television people. At night, we’d give our children [two daughters, now in their forties] to Richard’s parents and go downtown to hit theater or a movie.
RICH: We like movies also.
MARY: Maybe that’s what drew us to each other. We liked the same things.
RICH: We don’t like sports.
Why don’t you usher at Shea’s?
MARY: We’ve had our own season tickets for [more than forty years]!
RICH: Our seats are in the second row in the front, and they’re also in our will.
MARY: We did the Philharmonic for fifteen years, but we gave it up a couple of years ago.
RICH: It took too much time.
MARY: We weren’t seeing our kids or four grandkids.
How many shows do you work a month?
RICH: it’s mostly every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoon. We also travel a lot. Every month, I try to pick a place to go. A lot to Orlando, because we love Disney [they’re taking the whole family for their fiftieth]. We’ve got a couple of cruises booked, and we just came back from Williamsburg a week ago.
MARY: I’d say it’s about nine a month. When our grandchildren were younger, our kids knew never to ask us to babysit on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday because we were working. Where we don’t volunteer, we buy tickets, like at New Phoenix.
RICH: We just saw The Full Monty at Subversive. So funny!
How do you schedule everything?
MARY: I put in Alleyway first, and if [BUA Artistic Director] Javier [Bustillos] is having a play, I try to fit in as many of his dates as I can to do box office. Theaters where we don’t usher, I call and let them know when I want to come. Kavinoky, you book in August, so I put it on the calendar. MusicalFare, you call and let them know the month before. Irish, you book at the beginning of the season, which makes it easier to book other theaters around it. O’Connell and Company, because I’m sort of in love with Mary Kate, we take a date, and if she needs more, we go do it a second time.
RICH: We also do Diva sometimes.
MARY: It’s very full retirement. We do go away every month, but we try to work around what’s already in the calendar. We like to go away during weekdays and try to keep weekends for theater.
You are like Type A+++ people!
MARY: Yeah, we can’t sit down. He’ll come home from doing a three-hour walking tour and say, “Where do you want to go?”
RICH: I love downtown, I love Allentown. We’re always there doing something. I love the city.
Do you see a lot of overlap among patrons at theaters?
MARY: Yes, theater people are theater people. When people call the RLTP box office and I book them, a lot of the time, they say, “Oh, I have Kavinoky that day,” or ,“I have Irish.” So it’s definitely the same crowd.
RICH: Mostly an older crowd.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
MARY: I like seeing the shows—that’s a great side benefit—but I love the way it makes me feel. I love people, number one. I love interacting with patrons, talking to them on the phone. I love dealing with ushers and booking them. I love how grateful theaters are that you’re actually helping them and not looking for any compensation other than seeing the play. As a teacher, I was always helping, especially with kindergartners, and I’m still doing that, and keeping my mind sharp.
RICH: I like the way the actors know us and mingle with us and talk to us. People know us.
MARY: People say, “Oh, hi Mary!’ and I don’t know who they are, but they remember me.
You must have some great stories after all these years. Strange requests from patrons?
RICH: When we ushered at Kleinhans, a lot of people would ask, “Where’s the balcony?”
MARY: And we say, “Upstairs?” They say that at Kavinoky, too.
RICH: That’s my favorite.
MARY: One time at Alleyway, a patron told me how much he enjoyed the play, but that was it was nothing like the review. Turns out he thought he was at Smith Theatre.
You’re not allowed drinks in Alleyway, and you clean up afterward and find the alcohol glasses. They hide drinks in their coats. Sometimes you know, but you can’t come out and say it.
Seeing so much different theater, has your appreciation or tastes changed?
MARY: I like dramas more than Richard does, but I like everything.
RICH: We do.
MARY: I would never say “I don’t want to try slapstick, because I’m not into that.” There was never a time in my life when I can remember not loving theater.
What have you really enjoyed this past season?
MARY: I loved Disgraced at Road Less Traveled.
RICH: That was powerful.
MARY: I liked The Producers [at Kavinoky].
RICH: And Mamma Mia!
MARY: And Visiting Mr. Green [at JRT]! I saw it twice, and if I was ushering and not box officing, I would have seen it many more. I loved it!
RICH: I loved Significant Other [at BUA]. We saw it like four times.
MARY: I couldn’t pull myself away. I’d hurry and count the money at the box office, so I could sit in on the second half.
RICH: That was so good.
MARY: Whenever we do Alleyway or BUA, we walk out and say, “Gosh, that was fun.” If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t do it.
Murder for Two, by Joe Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics), MusicalFare
Synopsis: An irreverent theatrical riff on the classic whodunit, Murder for Two makes everyone a suspect in a comedic murder mystery musical with a twist: one actor is the investigator, the other plays all of the suspects, and they both play the piano.
Murder for Two had its world premiere at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in May 2011; it won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Musical. In 2013, it moved to New York, where it played for eight months at two theaters before beginning an eighteen-month national tour.
The New York shows were directed by Scott Schwartz, son of Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Children of Eden, etc.)
Top city critics were hard on Murder for Two, but nonetheless recognized the audience appeal that created unstoppable momentum for the show. Regional critics were more forgiving, but careful to point out the “vaudevillian” flavor of the “madcap mayhem” and most often cited the enjoyment of the sheer theatrical feats on stage.
The concept of one actor playing multiple roles has become increasingly commonplace, and was recently featured in MusicalFare’s Baskerville at Shea’s 710 Main, and Tenderly, the Rosemary Clooney Musical last season.
What they said: “The story isn’t meant to be a model of narrative refinement. Much of the fun comes from the lunatic challenge of simply performing such convoluted silliness. The actors’ delight in these comic X Games is intended to spark our own.”]
– Charles McNulty, Los Angeles TimeTimes, June 2015
MusicalFare opens Murder for Two July 11 (musicalfare.com, 839-8540).
This month at a glance:
Slut runs June 21 through July 7 at Subversive Theatre Collective (subversivetheatre.org, 408-0499).
Weather permitting, King Lear runs every night but Monday at Shakespeare in Delaware Park until July 15 (shakespeareindelawarepark.org, 856-4533).
MusicalFare opens Murder for Two July 11 (musicalfare.com, 839-8540).