Saturday, December 15, 2012

Farewell to Wanda Woman

Just heard the shocking news that Sue Walton, my old partner-in-crime for ten years of Holiday plays at the SF School, passed away from complications due to a tooth abscess. I’ve heard rumors of a service sometime in February—her birthday was Valentine’s Day, so perhaps then. But meanwhile, a few words about Sue.

Sue was a large woman in all ways— body (over 6 feet tall), heart and spirit, a memorable character who stood out from the crowd. I first met her at Cazadero Music Camp in 1980. She was the drama teacher in residence, sang blues at every open mike she could and was known by various aliases, of which “Wanda Woman” was my favorite. After a few summers in Cazadero together, I invited Sue to co-direct the Winter Holiday Plays at The San Francisco School with me and so began ten marvelous years together, from 1984-1993.

What a run we had! I imagine most SF School alums will remember some of our classic collaborations—It Could always Be Worse, King Hop, The Christmas Carol, Holly and Ivy, The Day They Outlawed Music (this one was James Harding’s first school play), Lora Lorita, The Month Brothers, The Elders of Chelm and The Golden Goose, to name just a few. Sue often wrote her own songs for her scripts and that last play included her best-selling “Oh, we’re all stuck together and we can’t get loose. We’re all following the Golden Goose.” She also had a great Halloween song and a Cazadero classic “Don’t Let the Bugs Bug You.”

Sue loved to sing and could belt out the blues with the best of them. She was always to the side of the Orff world, but in 1996 came to the Memphis Orff Conference and what a treat it was to hear her grab the mike and sing on Beales Street! We had a couple of songs we liked to do together, me on piano, her on vocals— When Sunny Gets Blue and My Funny Valentine amongst them (Sue’s birthday was on Valentine’s Day.) Every year after the plays were done, Sue would join in at the last singing time of the year with the kids and cap off the group singing with a solo version of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. I played the song on the piano the day after I heard the news and imagined her by my side.

Once Sue left the school, we still ran into each other here and there. She got some gig at the Lawrence Hall of Science and continued with her freelance work. Talking to the folks who first told me the news, it seems like after some 20 years, she got laid off from her Lawrence Hall gig and was piecing things together the way freelance artists often have to do in this country. Which means no benefits or health insurance. The word on the street is that she had an abscessed tooth which she didn’t take care of— perhaps with no insurance, just trying to save money— and that it kicked off a serious infection that finally reached her heart. It makes me sick to think that if she had been living in Canada, Finland or Cuba, she might still be with us today. Wake up, America.

And so Wanda Woman is now wandering amongst the stars, having left her mark on us remaining mortals. RIP, Sue Walton— you are loved and remembered.

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