Subscriber Spotlight: Mary Ann Nelson

August 2, 2022

Long-time Season Subscriber’s Abounding Love of Music and Theater is Steeped in Family’s Rich Stage History


Mary Ann Nelson sat inside her home in Old Forge, NY fingering through playbills and photographs, the whimsical voice of her Aunt Christina playing on an old record in the background, as she described her love of music.

“My grandmother sang at Carnegie Hall, notably performing the ‘Bell Song’ (“Où va la jeune Hindoue”), which is incredibly difficult. She had an indescribable talent as a coloratura soprano, which she passed down to my mother and aunt. Growing up, my house was always filled with music. When my father left for work, my mother would change the dial and send waves of opera music throughout the house and we’d sing along. Music was around me my whole life, and so it became a part of me,” Nelson reminisced.

While Nelson’s mother followed in the footsteps of her grandmother, who gave up her career at Carnegie Hall to marry her doting husband and raise three beautiful girls and a son, Nelson’s Aunt Christina moved to Manhattan, pursuing life on the stage and working beside her then-husband, Billy Hammerstein, the oldest son of Oscar Hammerstein II, who was in the midst of directing the 1979 Broadway revival of his father’s play Oklahoma!

“Over the few times we were on the east coast, we’d visit my grandparents and Aunt Chris and Billy in NYC. When I was young I’d tag along with my mom who spent time with my aunt as she gave voice lessons or was in the recording studio finishing an album. As I got older, and NYC became closer, I’d catch a performance of my Aunt Chris, attend a play with her, and enjoy dinner with her and Billy. It seemed normal, full of vigor and music, and I loved every minute of it.”

Gathered around the table in Manhattan restaurants, Nelson’s family would break into story and laughter as they repeated the tale of Nelson’s famous meeting with Ethel Merman. The story went that Ms. Merman, who was the lead beside Christina, in the chorus of Oscar Hammerstein’s play Show Boat, took a glimpse of the sweet baby girl and swooped her up in her arms.

“What a darling child,” Merman said, as she studied her tiny pink cheeks and porcelain face. With that unmistakable voice, Nelson began screaming, her wails echoing through the halls of the theater.  Ms. Merman happily handed her back over to her mother and skipped back on stage, eager to relieve herself from the crying baby.

“I scared away Ethel Merman,” Nelson chuckled.

While Nelson can’t recall what age she realized she’d inherited the voice of the females before her, she remembers her strong desire to be on stage and sing for anyone who would listen. She performed in every talent show in grade school, joined the chorus, sang for her church, and sought opportunities around town, which ranged from New Brunswick, Maine to Rochester, NY due to her father’s Navy career.

In her junior year of high school, the vociferous student received the lead in Monroe High School’s play, a stretch since leads were only offered to seniors.

“I memorized every female song from Carousel. I stood up and belted the lyrics out, capturing the attention of Jack Watkins, who was directing the play at the time. He looked up at me, quizzically, and asked me to read the lines of the play. After I was done he said, ‘You have a beautiful voice but are a putrid actress.’ Regardless, I got the part and spent hours working on my acting.”

Nelson was so proud of her growth within the performance she invited Oscar Hammerstein to her opening show. Though Hammerstein was in London producing “Flower Love Drum Song,” he wrote back wishing her luck.

“Aunt Chris saw his letter and reaffirmed it was his signature and confirmed had he been in town he would have traveled to Monroe High School to attend the show.”

After her experience as a lead performer, Nelson decided to immerse herself in everything theater had to offer. She took a beat from her grandmother and signed up for voice lessons with Anna Kaskas a Mezzo-soprano, Contralto, who performed at the MET, which highlighted a multi-disciplinary roster of acting credits that included lead roles in Oklahoma, Music Man, Mame, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Fiddler on The Roof, and a music major in college. Nelson also sang folk music and played guitar in area lounges and bars, performing songs by Helen Ready, Olivia Newton-John, and the notoriously splendid duo, Captain and Tennille. However, the one song she kept in every repertoire was ”Sunshine on my Shoulder” by John Denver.

Months before Nelson left for college she met her would-be husband, Stuart. While he was nine years older than her, the two shared a common love of music. They sang in the car when he drove her to college, and before Stuart was sent overseas to serve in the National Guard, he gifted Nelson with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and tapes so they could communicate. Once a week Nelson would receive a package filled with reel tapes of Nelson singing to her. She’d listen, her heart soaring with every note he carried, and respond back with a recording of her own.

“Music was our lifeline during those times. No matter what was happening in our lives, or how far apart we were, the songs on those tapes made us feel as if we were right beside one another. One song I particularly remember was ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas.’ But, he wasn’t!”

Unfortunately, after three kids and several moves, the Nelsons got rid of the recordings, never imagining they’d long to hear the music they sang to one another so long ago.

When Stuart returned to the states, he asked for Nelson’s hand in marriage, and brought his family to see her in her latest performance of Oklahama!

“Stuart’s father was from Norway. So when it got to the part where Laurie is about to have her first kiss, he stood up and in a loud Norwegian voice yelled, ‘Hey, that’s my son’s girl,’ which made my future husband happy and caused the whole audience to belt out in laughter. Long story short, the kiss did not happen. However, I did manage to get my husband back years later when I made him perform as the fiddler when the Rabbi in Fiddler became ill. He wasn’t a stage fan, but he ultimately sacrificed his fear and played as a fiddler on stage with me.”

Nelson continued to share her passion for music with her husband as they sang together in the church choir, and she used her velvet-like voice to soothe the hearts of her beloved children. As time went on, and life became dedicated to her family, Nelson kept her feet in the theater, performing in small theater groups when time allowed, and gobbling up shows and performances whenever she had the chance.

“There’s just something about experiencing music or watching theater performed in front of you that does something to the soul. It awakens something within you.”

Employed as the Town Clerk for several years, Nelson brought her love for music and theater into the workplace. She spoke about the musicals and performances she’d seen with her husband with such ferocity that one year the secretary to the Town Supervisor bought a subscription for 15 seats at Broadway Utica. The women rented a van so they could converse as they took the 45-minute drive from Old Forge to Utica and then break down the performance together on their ride home.

“I believe Chicago and Out of the Woods were two of our favorites as a whole, but there were too many good shows to decipher. It was just a great experience to attend these shows together and then return to work with this commonality and discussion. It brought us together.”

For the next 15 years, the same crew remained together, renewing their subscriptions and seats. However, when retirement and life events began to roll around, the size of their group dwindled, leaving Nelson and Diane Bowes as the only remaining members 25 years later.

“We’ve been adamant in keeping our original seats. We’ve become familiar with the people around us. It’s funny, you take a seat next to someone you’ve never met and you develop this kinship because of your love for theater and a show. Every year Diane and I discuss whether to renew our subscription and every year we always return. Our only drawback is the winter storms that make it a pain in the neck to get to at times, but even on the scariest of nights it’s always worth it in the end.”

Lost in the movements and pitch scales before her, Nelson was often spotted quietly singing the words from her velvet seat, and returning to the office with the lyrics hanging on the tip of her tongue. Her voice and personality held such zest that the Town Clerk of the Town of Vestal made her promise to sing at her opening ceremony should she ever be appointed as president. In 2000, when that came to pass, she held Nelson to her promise and asked her to sing the national anthem and ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’ for the New York Town Clerks Association’s annual meeting in NYC, which held over 4,000 people. Nelson, who was a touch more nervous than she would have been years before, sang the “National Anthem” and then drew in a deep breath, closed her eyes, and belted out “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

Then something magical happened. A table of politicians stood up and began holding hands. Another table joined them, and then another, until all 4,000  were singing along, their hands clasped together, and the politicians at the head table reached out and grabbed her hand.

“I barely finished the song,” Nelson choked out. “It was so moving. I never forgot that moment or that feeling.”

Nelson and her husband have continued to make music and performance part of their lives. Together,  they’ve traveled to Germany to see the Oberammergau Passion Play, and taken part in area church performances. Though spending evenings with Broadway Utica is something special between Nelson and Diane, she returns home quickly to share all the details of the performance with Stuart and spends the next day humming the tunes around the house.

“Music is still such a big part of our lives. I can’t imagine a world without it. It brings such a connection to your mind and soul, making the bad things going on in your life diminish. None of us can change what goes on in the world around us, but we can all focus on the beauty of words and become swept away in a performance and get lost in a moment for a brief period of time.”

Enraptured with decades of lasting memories of the theater and the charmed life it afforded her, Nelson reflects positively on her lengthy relationship with  Broadway Utica and the impact it has had on her.  Yet, while she has her favorites,  you’ll only receive a simple, three-word answer when she’s asked which shows she’s looking forward to as Broadway Utica’s seasons continue: “All of them.” 


Article by: T.K. Milo & Co.


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