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Bragging Rights

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Now a Carmel resident in her eighties, former stage and TV actress Patricia Wilson just might be the worst person to sit before a crowd and showboat about her long and illustrious career -- even though it was with Broadway legends such as Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and world-renowned choreographer George Balanchine.

Yet Sunday evening (April 12) Wilson will be at the Schrott Center for the Arts to speak about highlights of her personal experiences in showbiz and to entertain questions from the audience.

The free event About Broadway: Rodgers and Balanchine will present an intimate conversation with Wilson and Butler University Dance faculty member Patrick Hinson, who also has worked with Balanchine and choreographer Jerome Robbins of Westside Story and Fiddler on the Roof fame. Together, Wilson and Hinson will share their experiences and lend their advice on all things musical theater, especially acting and dance.

Oklahoma! was the first musical collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. - COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Oklahoma! was the first musical collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Butler School of Music’s Brian Hoffman will moderate the roughly 45-minute discussion and Q&A session that will precede the 7 p.m. Song & Dance concert at the Shrott Center. The concert (which requires a ticket) will feature selections from Richard Rodgers’ Broadway hits, such as Carousel, The King and I, Oklahoma! and Cinderella, performed by the Butler School of Music and the Butler Ballet.

Wilson's life has been memorialized in her memoir Yesterday's Mashed Potatoes: The Fabulous Life of a Happy Has-Been. - COURTESY OF PATRICIA WILSON
  • Courtesy of Patricia Wilson
  • Wilson's life has been memorialized in her memoir Yesterday's Mashed Potatoes: The Fabulous Life of a Happy Has-Been.

“Patricia Wilson is just the sweetest lady and the most unassuming, modest person," says Brian Hoffman. "Here she’s had this incredible career, both in television and on Broadway, where she worked alongside Rodgers & Hammerstein and Balanchine and so many others -- legendary names in the business, we’re talking icons, but it’s just not like her to brag about these amazing stories."

He adds, "She might be the worst person to boast about her career, but in this case I say, ‘Go ahead and brag a little -- please!’”

Rest assured, says Hoffman, she’ll have plenty to talk about. He met Wilson when they worked together in the Actors Theatre of Indiana in Carmel, during a production of My Fair Lady a few years back.

He says performing arts students and community members alike who are interested in musical theater will enjoy the conversation Sunday evening.

As a young woman, the third-generation actor left her sedate surroundings of Ohio State University, and headed straight for The Big Apple following graduation. And in within only two weeks, she became a weekly winner of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, (think: 1950s American Idol), which catapulted her to her first real gig in an Oldsmobile industrial show.

Her leading man in that no-expense-spared production was well-known dancer and director, Bob Fosse, famous for Tony Award-winning shows such as Cabaret and Chicago.

All she needed was her passion for the arts, the voice her mother taught her to use, and the luck of being born into what she calls the “Golden Age of Broadway.”

A Leading Lady

With Broadway in her blood, Patricia Wilson, became a speedy success. She says she had, “very little choice” in entering the business, since her father was born on a showboat, and her mother and grandparents were actors.

But even Wilson’s early training and genetics for song and dance couldn’t prepare her for some of the disappointments that came with working in the entertainment business.

Richard Rodgers composed more than 900 songs for some 43 Broadway musicals. - COURTESY OF THE WIKIMEDIA FOUNDATION
  • Courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation
  • Richard Rodgers composed more than 900 songs for some 43 Broadway musicals.

While swiftly climbing the Broadway ladder, Wilson’s experience in the Oldsmobile show got her discovered by Richard Rodgers in 1955.

Now known as an EGOT-winner, (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), Rodgers was writing music with Oscar Hammerstein for Pipe Dream at the time, a Broadway story of friendship and romance. Rodgers hired Wilson for the lead after she sang for him.

But the director of the show had been in California when Rodgers picked Wilson. He returned with a new lead in mind, moving Wilson down in the cast. Despite that discouraging moment after Wilson’s positive start to showbiz, she continued to pursue her dreams.

“I could have decided to give up,” she says, recalling the bittersweet turn of events. “But I kept going, and it was just a couple of years before I became a Broadway leading lady.”

Yesterday’s Mashed Potatoes

Wilson went on to star in more of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works, becoming their protégé.

Many of the shows Wilson played in, such as Fiorello!, a Tony Award-winning Best Musical, became widely popular.

But the defining moment in her career came when her Golden Age of Broadway ended, and a new era had begun.

“I was outdated in theater. It had become something new,” Wilson says. It was then, in 1972, that she packed up her bags and moved west to California to begin her TV acting career.

That showbiz stint spanned 60 years and led her to roles in which she either co-starred or was featured in some 150 TV episodes. Some of her most notable gigs were on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, A League of Their Own, and Designing Women. And eventually she stepped off of stage, and into perhaps her most rewarding role as a mother and eventually a grandmother of five.

Her memoir, Yesterday’s Mashed Potatoes: The Fabulous Life of a Happy Has-Been denotes her tenured career performing under and alongside huge Broadway names. These days Wilson continues working on her second book, a generational novel with family influence.

And she devotes her time offstage to mentoring young, aspiring thespians and speaking about her book. “I do love young people and their enthusiasm about the business,” Wilson says.

To hear more about her life on Broadway, go see Wilson at Sunday evening’s discussion “About Broadway: Rodgers and Balanchine.” For more information on this event, the Song & Dance concert or other Butler ArtFest events, check out the website Butlerartsfest.org.

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