I Am Rarely Considered a Straight Man

Brenda Sparks’ memory evokes the image of Jim Crabtree’s formidable mother, the late Mary Crabtree, about whom the stories are plentiful thanks to her long history of performances and productions at CCP:

“There are so many [memories]! How to choose? The most memorable thing ever said to me was by Mary Crabtree herself. For my CCP debut, I was hired to direct a production of Over The River and Through The Woods.

Mary Crabtree had already been cast as one of the grandmothers. When I arrived in Crossville, I was warned by some well-meaning Playhouse regulars that Mary had not been directed by anyone other than her late husband Paul or one of their children in years. She was a quirky, yet intimidating, character. I had such immense respect for her career and what she had built on the plateau, but I knew I had to direct the show, and that meant every member in the cast.

We definitely locked horns in the beginning. It wasn’t a contentious relationship, but there was definite friction there as she tested my mettle. I’m not sure when or why the tides turned in my favor. But before moving into the theatre for tech. rehearsals and after an individual character meeting with her, she pointed at me and said, ‘Not since the late Bud Abbott has there been such a great comedic mind.’ I believe she worked with Mr. Abbott. I took it as a compliment.

Over the years, it has struck me odd that she didn’t say Lou Costello. I am rarely considered a straight man. Regardless, it was one of the most memorable things anyone has ever said to me in the theatre. From that day forward, we got along famously. I directed her again in the same show, and it was like butter. Maybe because I knew she trusted me, maybe because she knew I trusted her. Either way, she was a remarkable woman and I consider myself lucky to have received such high praise from her.”

© Brenda Sparks and Jeffrey Ellis
Used by Permission

This post first appeared in a January 27th, 2015 Broadway World article by Jeffrey Ellis entitled “THE GOLDEN PLATEAU: Celebrating Cumberland County Playhouse’s 50th Year.”