|Bobbi Smith: 1940-2001
by Mary Catherine Ball
Bobbi Smith. Black tank top and sweats. Big, bouffant blouse, one side hanging off her shoulder. Blondish brown hair hurriedly clipped up off her neck. A headset covering her ears and microphone moving slightly in front of her mouth. Hunched down in a front row seat in Key Auditorium at St. John's College, summer 1998. My first introduction.
Bobbi Smith. Black short-sleeved shirt and pants. Blondish-brown hair hurriedly clipped up off her neck. Pacing back and forth across the cafeteria at Central Middle School. Head turning left to right, up then down, critiquing the costumes for her 2000 Holiday Magic show. My last meeting.
Along the way we spoke, mostly about the Talent Machine Company, the children's dance theater she founded and directed. Conversations with her not only highlighted my play reviews but also drew me into her circle of admirers.
Yet all the while she was so vital, cancer must have been in her body, lurking so quietly in her pancreas that even she was unaware. On Monday morning Jan. 29, it stole her life, leaving family and friends shocked, grasping for words.
"Bobbi was very caring and giving. She knew how to get the best out of people, not only the kids but also the adults who volunteered," says Katie Sonntag, friend and stage manager for several shows. "Bobbi gave so much of herself to everybody. She didn't give 100 percent. It was always 120 percent."
Show after show for a decade, Smith encouraged the children to display their talent. And they did. After each show I attended with my mother, we would shake our heads and wonder, 'these are kids?' They sang and danced and produced shows that rivaled those of the adult theater community. The only explanation is that Smith put her heart and soul on the line with these kids every time.
"The kids were always first for Bobbi," Sonntag says. "Even though the show was what she loved to do, teaching and directing for her were vehicles to help kids and the parents."
Admiration for Smith crossed generational lines. Sonntag's daughter Amy, dance captain for last summer's shows, couldn't agree more.
"Over this past year, we became really close. I felt comfortable with Bobbi, she was like a best friend," Amy says. "One day she was upset about something and I was so touched that she came to me and talked with me. It was more important than being named dance captain. Bobbi, the person that I looked up to, came to me for help."
Amy watched older brother Dan in the Talent Machine shows, biding her time with dance lessons, hoping one day to join him. When she did, her excitement must have caught Smith's attention.
"I remember some of my first lines and solos, but most of all after my first show, I remember that Bobbi wrote a message on my shirt. 'You shine on stage. Love, B.' It was such a big deal for me."
Bobbi, too, shined across the footlights. "She was so wonderful with these kids, not only because she taught them skills, but because she kept their feet on the ground," says Bay Weekly theater reviewer Carol Glover. "She treated people holistically. Everything about them was important to her: how they did in school and related with other kids as well as talent. She was the exact opposite of Gypsy's Mama Rose."
Sonntag saw the interest Bobbi's investment earned. "There are so many kids in Annapolis wanting to head for Broadway. These kids grow up with confidence, they are good students, they're turning out to be the kids of people that are wonderful citizens. This is our youth."
Yes, added Glover, still shaking her head in disbelief at Smith's untimely death. "We don't have enough people like that working with our young people."
And now we've lost one.
The Talent Machine will continue to bring children and theater together in Annapolis. Bobbi Smith's sister Vicki and daughter Lea Capps look forward to carrying on the tradition.