By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on February 13, 2024.
Fran Rude had one more production to direct and this time she was centre stage.
Rude, who died recently at the age of 86, was the focus of attention Saturday at the Lethbridge Senior Citizens Organization as family and friends celebrated her life.
Rude organized her own celebration of life, a tearful yet joyous event that gave so many who knew her a chance to say goodbye.
With long-time collaborator Ken Rogers choking back tears, stage manager Nancy Graham telling stories of her work with Fran and family discussing what their step-mom meant to her, the long-time theatre director was given the farewell she so richly deserved.
Emceed by long-time friend and performer Sheila Matson, the event also featured laughter and music.
Singer Kade Hogg and keyboardist Richard Coombs performed a Rude favourite “When October Goes,” which was based on a lyric by legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer.
The two were among Rude’s favourite people, Sheila Matson said.
“When October Goes,” she recalled, was programmed for Hogg at a Starlight Lounge show and Rude told the singer after a rehearsal he would be singing it for him after she was gone.
“It became a running joke between them but you do what your director tells you,” said Matson.
Hogg was one of the regulars in Rude’s productions over the years while Coombs, who Rogers knew from university, became part of the Rogers and Rude team after he retired to Lethbridge about a decade ago.
The celebration ended with Rogers leading a chorus in “Look for the Silver Lining,” a Chet Baker song and Rude favourite.
As people crowded the dining room of the LSCO, Rogers and Graham talked about their own experiences with Rude who never missed a rehearsal of any production until near the end and who always showed up to rehearsals wearing sandals with no socks, regardless of the weather.
And Rude was a master of time management, Graham told the crowd with everything starting on time and finishing on time.
Rogers staged 36 shows with Rude as her musical director and Graham 25 as stage manager.
And Rogers learned from Rude that “a quarter note isn’t always a quarter note,” he said to laughter from the crowd which was a wide mix of ages who before the program started could watch a video production of Fran while looking at memorabilia from some of many shows she directed for companies such as the Lethbridge Symphony, Centre Stage, the LSCO and others.
“My bucket is full, I am so grateful for all the opportunities,” said Rogers.
“She had vision but she had vision combined with strength right up until her last year, 86 years old pulling off a show with a broken hip. Amazing, she was so strong.”
Rogers first saw Fran on stage in 1975 in “Oliver”
Rogers met her 40 years later while he was playing bass trombone in the pit while Don Robb was conducting “A Chorus Line” for a new company called Centre Stage.
“It was my very first show, I knew nothing about musical theatre, had never been in one, played for one, nothing. But I was bitten by the bug right there. It was such a great time and then that led to me being asked to be a vocal assistant on ‘Evita,’ he recalled.
While working with Scottish ex-pat John Reid at the University of Lethbridge, a 23-year-old Rogers listened to the soundtrack of “Evita” and heard the singing and “I was such a snotty classical musician. I listened to that soundtrack and said ‘that’s awful’ and I turned Fran down three times,” he recalled. Reid eventually convinced Rogers to take on the job and from then on he and Rude worked together.
He recalled the director being “so patient with me. So patient. She just gradually taught me about theatre and how the music works with theatre and I was just so ignorant about it all. I can never repay her,” he said, adding “I miss her terribly.”
Graham said Rude made clear what she expected from everyone, noting she always had a vision in her head. And Graham said one thing no performer dared to ask Rude was the motivation of their character, which also brought chuckles from some in the audience who clearly had experience with that aspect of Rude’s directing.
And Graham soberly noted that Fran somehow managed to keep her theatrical life completely separate from her professional life where she worked 28 years for Alberta Social Services, retiring in 1994 as regional supervisor of Foster Care Services in southern Alberta.
“She had this whole other life she kept separate,” said Graham noting the responsibilities Rude carried in her professional world, in which she played an instrumental role in creating a new adoption policy for the province, her stepson Gerry Rude told the gathering in opening remarks.
“You never heard her talk about it at theatre,” said Graham. “She never really brought her work people into theatre,” said Graham noting she didn’t appreciate until she looked back how difficult it could be to keep the two separate and distance.
Gerry Rude, along with siblings Grant and Donna, were first introduced to Fran – who they knew as Frances – by their father Victor in 1967.
Rude recalled his dad being smitten by Fran and they married in 1968. He recalled Fran being the first stewardess for Time Air but she wasn’t content to just be in the cabin of an airplane, she wanted to fly and acquired her own pilot’s licence. He recalled seeing his stepmom on stage for the first time at the Yates performing as a maid in “My Fair Lady” in 1970.
He talked fondly of her cooking skills and how the kids looked forward to having a Saturday meal with her and their dad and talked about the years she and Victor, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2008, spent on Flathead Lake first with a sailboat and then a cabin cruiser.
“She will be missed by all of us,” said Rude with a contingent of family beside him.
Matson told the audience that everyone who was at the LSCO to honour Rude was special to her “and a part of the huge family and community of arts people in the city of Lethbridge,” she said.
“As with everything else she did, Fran directed this celebration of her life – with notes to those involved,” Matson said to laughter.
And she along with Rogers, Graham and stepdaughter Donna followed those directions.
“Her arts involvement and philanthropy is a huge part of her legacy,” Matson noted.
“She worked in this community for her career but she was also a loving and beloved wife, stepmother, grandmother, sibling, mentor and friend and many other appelations. She gave selflessly to every facet of this life of hers. She didn’t want praise, she asked for excellence and we know she got it,” added Matson.
Rude, said Rogers, always brought a high quality of work to Lethbridge and set the bar high, noting she gave hundreds of people in the city an opportunity to become part of the theatre community.
While Rude was the driving force behind dozens of productions in Lethbridge, she never sought recognition for her work and Rogers noted “you could not get Fran to take a bow.”
But in spirit on Saturday, she had the chance as the curtain fell on her life.