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The Day My Grandmother Spoke to Us From Beyond

Was it an extraordinary coincidence? We don’t think so.


(This article appeared previously on NotesFromtheUndergrad blog.)

It’s said that when loved ones pass away, they find ways to let us know that they’re OK, to communicate with and console us. And I believe that that’s true. I’ve certainly heard enough stories to believe it.

But it hadn’t happened to me until my grandmother, Marian Carey, passed away.

I come from a family of show business, of storytellers. So here’s a story for the books.

Acting, singing, and, if not dancing, “moving well” — all the world’s a stage and the Careys and Wrights are the players. My cousins and I learned at a young age that everything’s a “bit,” everyone’s an audience, and “ya gotta be off book” (have your lines memorized). It’s a true blessing — and a constant competition! — to be part of a family with so much talent and passion.

At Home on Broadway

It all started with my grandmother, Marian Burke, as she was known then. Born in Pittsburgh, Marian made her way to The Big Apple, and found her calling on the wicked stage of Broadway.

She appeared in productions such as Kiss Me Kate, Top Banana and, most famously, Guys and Dolls. She was the second person (ever!) to play the leading role of the “mission doll,” Miss Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, understudying the original leading lady, Isabel Bigley.

To say that we had chills would be the understatement of the century.

Grandma’s story of the night she took over the role has become legend in our family. She remembers being told to come down to the stage and run through the choreography/blocking of the role of Sarah Brown just to make sure she was sharp, then being told — only a few hours before the curtain — that she’d be playing the part that night.

She was shown the program insert that would tell the audience she’d be playing the role of Sarah that evening. Going, as any good Catholic girl would, to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pray, she lit as many candles as she could afford to light before grabbing a chocolate shake and returning to her dressing room, formerly used by the legendary Ethel Merman.

A portrait of Ethel hung behind her and smiled through the mirror. Despite Grandma’s nerves, the show went on, and so did she.

An Unexpected Gift

Fast-Forward: My grandmother’s wake was held on April 18, 2016. At her funeral mass the next day, the priest said that he always tells the grieving family that their loved ones will reach out to reassure them in some way. But he said he had never gotten proof as quickly as he did the morning of this funeral. A letter had been hand-delivered to the church by a man named George Wagner. It read:

Dear Carey Family,

My name is George Wagner. I am the Propertymaster at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. It was renamed from The 46th Street Theatre a number of years ago. It has been the home to many hit plays and musicals, including the original production of Guys and Dolls. As some of you must know, Marian Burke was a cast member in that original company. I suspect that she was a member of the chorus, and also understudied the role of Miss Sarah Brown, the female romantic lead.

Yesterday, a bracket holding a handrail to the wall in the upper mezzanine pulled out of the wall, and I was tasked with assessing the damage. In the process of cleaning out brick and plaster dust from the hole in the wall, I pulled out two other items: a cardboard bottle top from a long forgotten bottle of Fayette Orange Soda, and a program insert from the original 1950 production of Guys and Dolls. I mounted the insert, and would like you to have it as a tribute to Marian’s love of music and the arts, and as a token of my sincerest sympathies. I did not know her, but I will always remember her.

Sincerely, George Wagner

The note given to the Carey family on the day of Marian Burke's funeral.Credit: Courtesy of the Carey family.

Preserving a Memory

Now, as you can imagine, in the middle of her funeral mass, this story was more than enough to send us off the edge and into tears.

After the service and burial, we opened a smaller envelope that was inside the letter. Mounted on a piece of cardstock no bigger than an index card, was a crumpled scrap of paper that read:

“At this performance, the part of Sarah Brown will be played by Marian Burke.”  The program insert from when she took on the role in 1950.

To say that we had chills would be the understatement of the century.

(George Wagner later told us that when he found the scrap of paper with my grandmother’s name on it, being a theater history buff, he decided to look her up. A quick Google search of “Marian Burke Guys and Dolls” brought several results, the first two being her resumé on Playbill.com and her obituary. When George realized that she had lived in Wyckoff — not far from his New Jersey home in Kinnelon — and that her funeral service was being held the very next day, he mounted the program insert and wrote the letter to our family, deciding to personally drop it off to the church the next morning before the funeral.)

Her ‘Most Famous Story’

Now, Marian Carey was never one for subtlety, but this was beyond belief — that 65 years later, on the day of her wake, the right person was called to the right place at the right time, and found the program insert from the most famous story she ever told us. The story that we’ve told countless times since then, about the show and the program and the shake and Ethel Merman.

How many series of coincidences brought George Wagner to that theater, to assess that particular spot on that particular day, where he found and read that tiny scrap of paper that he could easily have just thrown away, and took the time and effort to mount the scrap to preserve it and get it to Marian’s church on the morning of her funeral?!

Thanks to Grandma, “the family curse” (as we lovingly call it) of theater, singing and just generally entertaining anyone who’ll listen has lived on in our family, even through the tough times. And the stories have lived on, too. Of course, saying “So Long, Farewell” to Grandma was hard, but, as always, she managed to be a showstopper once more.

As my mother said, “Only Marian could make an entrance at her own funeral.”

 

The Richard Rodgers Theatre is currently home to the musical Hamilton, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama on April 18, 2016 — the day of my grandmother’s wake. On that very day in 1951, 65 years before, Guys and Dolls won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. However, since writer Abe Burrows was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, it was decided that no prize would be officially awarded that year.

 

 

By Katherine Carey
A Louisiana native, Katherine Carey is a senior at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta studying English and theatre. She hopes to pursue a career in academic advising and writing. Her blog can be found here.

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