• Anthony Chase

The Theatrical Life of Mary Loftus

July 28, 1935 - January 23, 2020

Mary in "The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek" at Kitchen Theatre Company. Photo courtesy of Rachel Lampert

By ANTHONY CHASE

A character actress with a brazen sense of comedy and a heartbreaking sense of tragedy, Mary Loftus died on January 23 at the age of 84. A colorful presence on the Buffalo theater scene from the 1980s, up until her gradual retirement in recent years, Loftus is remembered by her friends and theater colleagues for her sharp wit, her intense loyalty, her generosity, and her often outrageously cantankerous nature.


Mary never did anything halfway, and anyone who saw her on stage has distinct memories of the event. In numerous roles across a vast range, she was often the most memorable element of a show.


The titles seem endless. Darrah Cloud’s The Stick Wife at Franklin Street Theatre. Jungle Book at Gypsy Theatre at Fort Erie. Dracula, Sherwood Anderson’s The Bad Seed, Jane Anderson’s Looking for Normal and Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba at Buffalo United Artists. Deathtrap at the Kavinoky. Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women at the New Phoenix. Can’t Dance to Wet to Plow, Price of Madness, Over the Falls, and Answering Neptune at Alleyway Theatre. Several installments of Diva by Diva at O’Connell & Company.

She was a five-time Artie Award nominee and won the Artie in 2009 for her performance in Beauty Queen of Leenane at the New Phoenix. Her other nominations were for Lovers for Irish Classical in 1992; Kathleen Betsko Yale’s Johnny Bull at BUA in 1993, Answering Neptune at Alleyway in 1994, The Food Chain at BUA in 1997, and Making Gay History at BUA in 2005.


Beauty Queen of Leenane

Agnes of God with Maureen Porter and Mary Kate O'Connell

Waiting for the Parade

The opening night of Brian Friel’s Lovers, back in 1991, has become Buffalo theater legend. It was an Irish Classical Theatre Company production on the Alleyway Theatre stage. Loftus played Hanna, opposite the late great Chris O’Neill as Andy, a middle-aged Irish couple trying to advance their relationship while Hanna’s bedridden and disapproving mother interrupted constantly by ringing a bell.


In Lovers, O’Neill’s character politely asked her, “How’s your mother.”


Hanna responds with a single word, “Living.”


The line always gets a chuckle, but Lotus’ dark reading of the word was greeted with a show-stopping explosion of laughter from the audience every night. Funny bones had been primed for the unplanned incident that was about to happen. In the ensuing scene, substantial Loftus was to pounce on scrawny O’Neill in an act of amorous desperation, pushing him down onto the parlor settee. Perhaps it was the adrenaline of opening night, but at the critical moment, as the two slammed down onto the upholstery, a leg of the sofa broke off and one whole side fell to the floor with a resounding thud. Without missing a beat, unflappable Loftus cursed the offending sofa and continued her romantic advance on O’Neill with renewed ardor. The audience roared with approval.


This spontaneity and full throttle focus on the theatrical moment was typical of a night at the theater when Mary Loftus was onstage.


Mary Loftus was born in Buffalo, New York on July 28, 1935, the daughter of Thomas Loftus and Verne Kirby. She grew up in the Cold Spring neighborhood and lived her entire life here. She was the youngest of three children and the only girl. Her brothers were Patrick and Walter.

Mary's early start in show business

Mary contended that her mother had dreamed of a show business career of her own and was convinced that Mary could be the next Shirley Temple. Mary’s mother gave her the show business name, “Cinderella” and looked for opportunities for her to perform and model. Mary had a scrapbook with photos of herself as a child in show costumes, all labeled, “Cindy,” in her mother’s handwriting. At the age of 4, she was the poster child for the Buffalo Community Chest, and her photograph, hands jointed in prayer, appeared on billboards all over town. When a talent contest earned her a contract for a job in New York City, her mother was convinced that this was her ticket out of life as a Buffalo housewife. Mary’s father, however, saw right through that plan and tore up the document. In Mary’s recollection, this marked the end of her parents’ marriage.

Loftus graduated from Bishop McMahon High School, back in 1952 when it was still located in the Charles W. Goodyear mansion at 888 Delaware Avenue. She was popular in school, was her freshman class president, exceled academically, and graduated at the age of 16.


Mary’s daughter, Katie Hadrovic recalls that the nuns recognized Mary’s intellect and realizing that she had the potential to achieve beyond the 1950s expectations for a woman, they urged her to consider college. The family finances, however, made that dream impossible.

Mary's high school graduation.

“The nuns pulled together enough money for my mother to attend Rosary Hill for one year,” says Hadrovic. “She loved it, but she could not afford to continue.”


In the fall of 1953, at the age of 18, Mary found herself in a desperate situation. She was pregnant at a time when having a child “out of wedlock” bore the stigma of “illegitimacy.” The father was her future husband, Kerm, but he was away in the navy. Unmarried, alone and with just a high school diploma, she saw few options.


Mary read an article in the February 1954 issue of the “Reader’s Digest” about The Edna Gladney Home for young and unmarried mothers in Fort Worth, Texas. She sold the only item she owned of any value, her typewriter, and took a bus to Texas. She told her mother that she had gotten a job in California.


“She didn’t call ahead,” says her daughter, Brenda Caldwell Merriman. “She was afraid they wouldn’t take her, and she saw no other options. So she just showed up at the door of the Edna Gladney Home, determined to make them take her in.”


Mary gave birth to a girl and immediately gave her up for adoption.


“In a letter to my father,” says Merriman, “she said that I looked just like him. But she admitted to me that she only ever saw the top of my head.”


Many times, while verifying facts of Mary’s life, her daughters Kristi, Katie, and Brenda all will say, “Yes. That is a story my mother told me, and it might be true.”


Katie also adds, “I have heard my mother tell the story of something that happened while I was present, and there are often elements of what you might call ‘Irish embellishment.’”


For example, after, at the age of 45, Brenda Merriman found her mother, Mary added to her Reader’s Digest story a new detail. She realized that despite her ruse, her mother must have known all along, and had undoubtedly left the magazine out and open to the Edna Gladney article on purpose!


That might be true.

Brenda Caldwell Merriman and Mary, mother and daughter reunited

Certain details of Mary’s life are indisputable. She was married four times. She did have three daughters with Kerm Bundt: Brenda who was adopted by a family in Texas, and the daughters Mary raised, Katie and Kristi. She was, for many years, personal legal secretary to Ed Kavinoky and later worked as a paralegal.


While Mary and Kerm divorced, they remained close friends. Katie opines that their relationship was very similar to being siblings.

Mary and Kerm, clowning around as Raggedy Ann and Andy

Katie recalls that Mary was very stylish during the disco era of the 1970s. For those who only knew he as a character actress this might be hard to fathom. As an actress, Mary seemed to eschew vanity and glamor entirely. In reality, her life divides into segments with their own distinct trajectories and groups of friends.

“Yes, in her 30s, my mother was very glamorous” confirms Katie. “At that time, she was always made up carefully with fake eye lashes and fashionably dressed. My parents were divorced, so Fridays and Saturdays my mother went out on dates or with friends, and we spent Sundays with our Dad.”

Katie recalls that often, after Mary came home from a date, she would tell the girls, “Come on! Let’s go to HoJo’s,” and the three would head out, at midnight or 1 a.m., to the Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Delaware and North Streets, where they would have hot fudge sundaes and the girls would listen to their beautiful mother recount the story of her evening, and they would bask in the glory of being her daughters.


“She was our super star. She was our hero,” says Katie.


Mary’s best friends at the time, recalls Katie, were June Marvin, who ran the June II Modeling Agency, and model Veronica Thomas, who was studying law at the time.

The Three Amigos

“They were the three amigos,” says Katie. “They were very glamorous women and they went everywhere together. My mother would help June backstage at fashion shows, and sometimes Kristi and I would model. We’d wear first communion dresses, or be flower girls.”


“One time,” recalls Katie, “there was a party at a place on Gates Circle for ‘Buffalo’s Most Beautiful People.’ My mother and her friends went. OJ Simpson was there, and my mother appeared with OJ on the photo page of Buffalo News!”


During this period of time, Katie recalls Mary summoning her girls, Kristi and Katie, together and telling them, “I have three marriage proposals right now.”


“We knew it was true,” she says, “because we knew whom she was dating. One of these men was very prominent and from a very well known Buffalo family. My mother said she couldn’t marry him, because she couldn’t risk having anything about herself jeopardize him socially.”

At the time, the girls had no way of knowing they had a sister in Texas, who had been born before their parents were married.


After her fourth divorce, in the 1980s, Mary decided that she needed something for her own personal expression and she returned to her love of performing. Her first foray was at the old “Cabaret” run by Erica Wohl on Main Street.


“It was 1982,” Katie recalls. “Kristi and I served as ushers. Hardly anybody came to see it, but my mother had found her artistic community. The theater unlocked things for her that life had not provided.”

Mary had a longtime commitment to gay issues and a long association with LGBTQ theater with Buffalo United Artists

In addition to Irish Independence, Mary was a great proponent of gay rights. She valued her many gay friends, and enjoyed socializing at gay bars. Mary’s gay world and her theater world often overlapped.


Actor Eric Rawski, who shared the stage with Mary many times, including for her Artie nominated role in Making Gay History and her Artie winning performance in Beauty Queen of Leenane, recalled her as a regular at Q on Allen Street. His memories demonstrate just how important friendships become in the theater and gay communities.


“There was a period of about five years,” recalled Rawski, “when I was bartending at Q that I spent more time with Mary and [music director] Michael Hake than I did with my own family. They had become like family actually. Both of them were usually there every time I worked.


“What was funny was that Mary would walk in, and Hake would do one of his infamous eye rolls and say to me ‘Ugh I wonder what kind of mood Loftus is in tonight.’ I'd walk down and say hi to Mary and she'd say ‘Hi sweets. What kind of mood is his majesty [Hake] in tonight?’

“This happened every time. I would smile and within half an hour they'd find their way to each other and spend the next few hours teasing each other, teasing me, gossiping about theater people, and reminiscing about the days of Flynn's bar. There was such genuine affection and love there. I miss them both every single day.”


Michael Hake died in December 2015.


“Theatrically,” Rawski continues, “there are two stories that stick out. Years ago when we were doing The Bad Seed at BUA, Mary played the nosy neighbor who dropped in and out of scenes. She had this one innocuous line, an exit line, but she kept giving that little line more and more emphasis. ‘And now if you'll excuse me I must go and check....’ and here she took a big dramatic pause and said, ‘on my simmering meat sauce!’ She kept saying it as if it was the clue to a mystery! I laughed every single night.”


“The other is when we were rehearsing Making Gay History,” says Rawski. “Matthew Crehan Higgins wrote it and Mary was truly wonderful in it. Early on in rehearsals, when we were blocking, Chris Kelly, our director, asked Mary if she could maybe cross stage left after she finished one of her speeches to which Mary responded with ‘I hope you get hit by a bus.” Of course I thought that was hysterical. Professional? Not at all! But classic Loftus? Absolutely. Even Mr. Kelly was so dumfounded that all he could do was laugh. To this day when he directs me in a show, I have to say that to him at least once.”


Chris Kelly recalls that Mary was not quite done by wishing for his death.


“She went on to say,” recalls Kelly, “that there was a special place in hell for directors like me.”


As for the “simmering meat sauce” exit?


“It was supposed to be a throw away,” agrees Kelly. “But Mary’s reading was delightful. Why change it?”


The playwright’s take on the process tops the story.


“Yes,” says Higgins. “In late 2004, BUA was putting on my stage adaptation of Eric Marcus's book ‘Making Gay History.’ It’s an oral history of people who worked on the first 50 years of the [gay rights] movement. Chris Kelly was directing it docu-drama style, with each of the cast playing several characters. Mary was all in for it and excited for several months about telling these stories, but as rehearsals began she wasn't having a good time. She felt like it was too complicated, she said Chris was putting in all this ‘choreography’ she hadn't signed up for. Actually it is a style of direction he has always done uniquely well, but Mary was convinced that it would never work. She threatened to resign and indeed did a few times, but would always come back for rehearsal.”


This was not unusual behavior for Loftus, who famously loved performing, but hated rehearsing. She had also complained when Kelly directed her in a camp version of Dracula, always saying that nothing he did was going to be funny to an audience.


“On opening night,” Higgins continues, “the show was a hit, and Mary was among its greatest highlights. In particular everyone loved sections where she portrayed Jeanne Manford, founder of what became PFLAG. Throughout the run she got huge accolades from the audience, from the other actors, from reviewers, from Kevin Jennings who was founder of GLSEN and an eventual Obama appointee who came to see it, and then an Artie nomination. [Eventually, even Manford’s daughter wrote a letter saying how she admired Mary and Eric’s portrayal or Jeanne and her son Morty, which she saw on video].”


“Several months, maybe even more than a year later, we were invited to do a staged reading of the show for a benefit. The whole original cast couldn't do it, but Mary was absolutely not going to miss the chance to come back to Jeanne. During the Q&A after, someone mentioned having seen the production and asking what the process was like. I opened my mouth to answer but Mary beat me to it saying: ‘It was a joyful process from start to finish!’”


Everyone who had witnessed the actual rehearsal process just looked at her in disbelief with their mouths open.


Mary is survived by her three daughters and by eight grandchildren. She will long be remembered for her big-heartedness, her remarkable talent, and her dynamic personality. A memorial service is being planned for February at the Alleyway Theatre.


To watch a video of Mary in Matthew Crehan Higgins' "Making Gay History," see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rrp6KhSlJtU .


To see video of Mary as the waitress opposite the late Fred Keller, Sr. in the 1981 film version of "Tuck Everlasting," see https://youtu.be/XyfAaFMO7IM . She's at 3:30. Once, after a performance, Fred went backstage to congratulate Mary. Never a humble man himself, Fred said, "Well Mary, you're turning into quite the little actress!" Unfazed, Mary responded, "Well Fred, when I've turned, you let me know."


Top photo courtesy of Rachel Lampert, Kitchen Theatre, Ithaca, NY. All other photos courtesy of Katie Hadrovic.


©2019 by Theater Talk ... and I'm Anthony Chase

Buffalo, NY, USA