Marian Anderson was born 119 years ago today. The vibrant, ground-breaking contralto is remembered still for historic acts like her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and for inspiring young black singers like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. Next year, she will appear — along with Eleanor Roosevelt — on the back of the redesigned US $5 bill.
Suzanne Sherman Propp remembers Marian Anderson for another reason. In 1973, Suzanne was a 3rd grader at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall). A staff member wrote a play about the famous singer — and cast Suzanne in that role. Then she invited Marian Anderson to come.
It’s an amazing story. And here to tell it is Suzanne Sherman Propp:
The playwright, Realand Uddyback, was a teacher at Bedford Elementary. Art teacher Ed Clarke did the sets, and music teacher Judy Miller Wheeler was the music director.
Besides asking me to play a young Marian Anderson, Mrs. Uddyback cast a black student, Robin Spencer, in the role of Marian’s white teacher.
Kids asked Mrs. Uddyback if they were going to paint my face with black make-up, and Robin’s with white make-up. She adamantly replied, “Of course not! I chose the best actresses to play the roles. The color of their skin does not matter. That’s the whole point!”
I sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” plus several songs written just for the play. One was “I like vanilla, it’s just like me: Plain when you see it, but, oh what it can be.” I think I still have the script.
Mrs. Uddyback boldly invited Marian Anderson, who was living in Danbury at the time, to see the play. To this day I cannot believe she actually showed up.
Here’s a photo of me, Robin and Marian Anderson. Also in the photo, at top left, is Cindy Gibb. She graduated with me from Staples in 1981, and went on to an acting career in “Fame” and “Search for Tomorrow.” She’s now a vocal coach in Westport.
Today, Suzanne Sherman Propp is a music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School. Every morning, she posts a very popular “Sing Daily! Song of the Day.”
Today’s is special: A clip of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall. Click here to see and hear!
It’s a thoughtful birthday honor for a true American hero. And a very fitting end to Black History Month.