This is a guest post by Barbara Suter,
most recently seen in her
award-winning solo show,
The Big Giant Bookstore.
The Ziegfeld Club is the sponsor of
The Marbury Project through December 2015.
Billie Burke, best remembered as Glinda the Good Witch in the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz, founded the Ziegfeld Club in 1936 to honor her husband’s legacy and to support the sisterhood of the Ziegfeld Girls. The Club offered help and companionship in good times and bad because the theater world, however magical, can also be challenging.
In the 1970s, I met my own Glinda when I got a job, not as a Ziegfeld girl, but as the Wicked Witch in a Traveling Playhouse production of The Wizard of Oz, with original music and lyrics by Richard Kinter. My onstage nemesis was a veteran actress, the remarkable Miss Lee Sanders, who always left me — the poor Wicked Witch — writhing in defeat with one quick wave of her magic wand.
As produced by Kay Rockefeller, the Traveling Playhouse offered a repertoire of fairy tales and adventure stories for children of all ages. Lee not only played Glinda the Good the Witch, but also Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother and the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio — always with two layers of false eyelashes, midnight-blue mascara and Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow lipstick.
Lee was born on June 6, 1914 in Norfolk, Virginia, and she never lost her sweet Southern accent — not even when she would sweep onstage and say, “I’m Glinda, the Good Witch of the No-wuth.”
And sweep onstage she did, in a beautiful, hoop-skirted, pink chiffon gown covered in tiny sequins, which she constructed herself. (She also doubled as a costumer for the company.) Her waist-length blonde hair was crowned with a rhinestone tiara; she wore t-strap slippers that barely touched the ground as she glided downstage. Her entrance induced a moment of silence from the little upturned faces in the audience followed by a collective, wondrous “Ahhhhhh.” Then a little girl in the front row would lean over and whisper to her mother, “She’s so pretty.” And it always happened — whether on the big stage at the Westbury Music Fair or at the Cape Playhouse in Massachusetts or at the 92nd Street Y in New York City or on a little platform in the children’s department of the public library in Stamford, Connecticut.
In 1944, Lee moved to New York City to pursue her dream of acting. She first worked in summer stock, then Off-Broadway, Broadway and national tours. At various times and in various places, she starred as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Laura in The Glass Menagerie and met Tennessee Williams when she did an Off-Broadway revival of The Lady of Larkspur Lotion. She appeared in the 1969 Broadway revival of Our Town starring Henry Fonda — featuring the original Wicked Witch, Margaret Hamilton.
Lee began to work with The Traveling Playhouse in her 50s, and she continued with it well into her 80s, her hair remaining long and blonde (with a little coaxing). And even though the chiffon dress and silver sequins became a bit tattered over the years, they still dazzled from the stage.
After I melted in The Wizard of Oz, I would rush to the back of the theater to watch the end of the show. Glinda waved her wand, Dorothy clicked her heels together and the lights flashed on and off. The actors spun round and round, making their way off stage while trying to avoid Frank, the stage manager, who was quickly pulling the Kansas backdrop into place. And while this went on, Lee escaped into the wings to change out of her pink chiffon gown and into Auntie Em’s calico house dress. On stage, Dorothy and Toto kept spinning until the lights restored and Dorothy, magically, was home.
“There you are,” Auntie Em exclaimed. “We thought you’d been blown away by the cyclone.”
“I was—I was blown all the way to Oz,” Dorothy said. “It was like a dream.”
“Dreams are funny,” Auntie Em said. “They seem so real at the time.”
Lee would take a moment after that line — give a simple, wistful sigh — then clap her hands together. “Come along child,” she would say. “We have a lot of work to do.”
That simple wistful sigh always touched my heart and left me for a moment, like Dorothy, yearning for my own dreams to come true — and also yearning to go home.
When Leslie Kincaid, the company’s ingénue, married her Prince Charming, Lee helped her to refurbish a $30 wedding dress from a thrift shop that she bought with her limited funds. They hand-washed and repaired it, and then Lee added her special blend of lace and crinoline and fairy godmother know-how and — abracadabra! — a $30 dress was transformed into a stunning gown.
We traveled to our shows in a 1975 Dodge station wagon and stopped at fast-food joints for lunch. We changed into our costumes in band rooms or lavatories with discolored mirrors and traveled home in the same cramped station wagon, our makeup kits shoved under our seats.
Lee often had a bit of needlework with her. During the holidays, she would pull out a tin of her famous bourbon balls to distribute among the cast. She made beautiful, handcrafted costumes and gifts, including exquisite Christmas angels that graced many a tree. She dressed with panache, accenting her outfits with antique jewelry and styled her hair into luscious confections that either flowed to her waist or twisted into artful swirls held in place with tortoiseshell combs.
In 1996, Kay Rockefeller and The Traveling Playhouse parked the royal chariot and stored the costumes for the last time. The company remained close, gathering at holiday parties and birthday celebrations and, of course, at the inevitable memorial services where we laughed and cried and reminisced about the shows and mishaps, and the fast-food and long car rides, and how much we missed them.
At 95, when Lee faced another surgery, Peggy Winslow, her friend from touring days, reached out to her like Billie Burke reached out to the Ziegfeld Girls and invited Lee to recuperate at her home in North Carolina. So, 66 years after moving to New York City with dreams of becoming an actress — which she brilliantly achieved — Lee left Oz and returned home to the South, where she still resides.
Lee is now 101 years old. Last year, at her 100th birthday party, she wore a pink satin dress with an orchid corsage and recited from memory Amanda’s jonquil speech from The Glass Menagerie. Her guests listened, enchanted, just as the children had for so many years before when the remarkable Miss Lee Sanders swept onstage and said, “I’m Glinda, the Good Witch of the No-wuth.”