Royal treats: The late Barbara Gibbons (right), with Christine Lightcap as veteran movie queens in a long-ago production of Legends. Michael Davis photo.
Most people probably knew Gibbons’ resonant chords from hundreds of television and radio commercials, everything from a granite headstone company to, most memorably, Sofas and Chairs. Her most frequent day job was in broadcasting with as many as five different local stations, WNDR, WFBL, WNTQ, WSYR and WHEN, since the early 1970s. Rod Carr, a longtime colleague and another familiar local voice, described her as a consummate broadcaster who could do anything: provide charming patter between the records, read the news with the gravitas of a female Edward R. Murrow, conduct probing interviews and, later, edit tapes of those interviews into a seamless whole. Gibbons also put that voice to work as a part-time speech teacher at Onondaga Community College for the past 15 years.
When she died at age 65 on April 26, she was best remembered by community theater players, with whom she had appeared over a 30-year period. Some of her earliest hits for the young Salt City Center for the Performing Arts company gave an indication of the range she would embrace. On one hand, she was the angst-ridden heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, one of the 10 great female roles of Western theater, and next she was the feather-light pop tart in Alexandre Breffort’s comedy Irma La Douce.
Markson, who never directed her, observed Gibbons closely in a dozen shows. “She always understood the character so intelligently,” Markson recalled, “and she knew how to connect with an audience.” Although Neil Simon comedies are not always thought of as demanding, she found gold in California Suite at the Glen Loch opposite Fred Lopez. All done in a British accent, she told gags and bared her soul in a role that won an Academy Award for Maggie Smith in the movie version. Gibbons always thought her best work was at Salt City Center in the title role of Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl, which Frances McDormand is reprising on Broadway this month.
A long personal and professional friendship with Christine Lightcap began with an early 1980s production of the musical Zorba, with Gibbons as the widow and Lightcap as the head of the Greek chorus. This led to two productions of Gypsy with Lightcap as Mama Rose and Gibbons as Mazeppa, the aging stripper in an oversize bra teaching the tricks of the trade to young Louise (soon to be Gypsy). At the Glen Loch they were sparring partners in Steel Magnolias, Gibbons as Clairee and Lightcap as Ouiser, and ex-film queens in James Kirkwood’s Legends.
Two productions of The Female Odd Couple drew big crowds, with Lightcap as fussy Florence and Gibbons as Olive, the aggressive sloppy one. All the girls are playing Trivial Pursuit when they get stuck on a question about baseball history. Olive bursts in and trumpets the answer. Then putting a bow to her cello she coos her love of baseball: “I love big men in tight pants.”
Fiumano, who played Manolo, one of the visiting Spanish boyfriends in Odd Couple, still remembers Gibbons’ professional unflappability. He was supposed to read a second-rate line, “It’s better to kill a bull with a knife than shoot it with a gun,” which he had done all though rehearsal and for five performances. It was Gibbons’ cue. Either through forgetfulness or impishness, Fiumano’s character said instead, “It’s better to stab a bull with your gun than to shoot it with your fork.” This knocked all the other Trivial Pursuit players off their chairs, but Gibbons, with hand on hip and steely-eyed resolve, never flinched and went into her next line as rehearsed.
Gibbons’ husband John predeceased her last year. Her married daughter Sarah lives in Santa Monica, Calif., and her son Brady lives in Corvallis, Ore. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Gibbons’ name to the SPCA, 5878 E. Molloy Road, Mattydale 13211.