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Pamela Hunt-Spradley's generosity speaks volumes

So long, Earth Mother

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If I hadn't been up in New York spending time with family, I probably would have written about Pamela Hunt-Spradley a couple of weeks ago. While we were away, Citizens of the Universe presented a five-day run of that guilty pleasure of a play, Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana — one of those works that Pam left an indelible mark upon, helping the Actor's Theatre of Charlotte production win our Best Drama award for 1997.

Pam's performance as a sexually rapacious innkeeper prompted me to label her the "resident Earth Mother of Actor's Theatre," a description I invoked for years afterward. Reviewing the late-August COTU production would have been my last opportunity to revive that sobriquet while Pam was alive. She died over the Labor Day weekend during our stopover for a bat mitzvah in Baltimore, Pam's birthplace.

That was something about Pam that I'd never known until I read the Observer obit. A heartfelt memorial at Actor's Theatre last Saturday morning told me much more as fellow actors Craig Spradley, Elyse Williams, Jerry Colbert, Polly Adkins, Hank West and Dennis Delamar, along with ATC executive director Dan Shoemaker, joined Pam's son and aunt in offering up anecdotes and testimonials.

There was more to celebrate than just her dramatic Earth Mother presence onstage. Pam was a registered nurse before she came to Charlotte and joined a couple of country rock bands. Then she found her truest calling in theatre, but she still carved out time for singing, songwriting, and painting. So the highlight reel of Pam's life, projected onto the Actor's Theatre stage, included not only childhood, theatre, and family photos, but also her singing the ballad at the end of Act 1 in Johnny Guitar and one of her own compositions.

Of course, most of the testimonials focused on Pam's special qualities as an actress and a friend. From where I sat, she exuded bacchanalian joy in Dancing at Lughnasa (1995), she was crooked and conniving in The Chemistry of Change (1999), and she was the comical antithesis of motherhood in The Cripple of Inishmaan (2001). A certain magnificence escorted Pam each time she strode onto the stage. She was a nominee seven or eight times for my Best Actress awards before finally breaking through and winning with her unforgettable portrait of Big 8, the Wild West queen of sexual healing in the 2003 Show of the Year, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage.

Summing up her range and charisma, more than one of her colleagues eulogized her as the Meryl Streep of Charlotte, but to me, Pam was more like our Colleen Dewhurst — rawer, more rugged, and more down-to-earth, especially in her later years. In one of the photos from Flaming Guns, the fierce Hunt-Spradley bears an unmistakable resemblance to Gary Cooper, the craggy hero of High Noon.

If one of the speakers at her memorial had revealed that Pam had stopped wearing makeup or shaving under her arms, I wouldn't have been shocked. Yet most of the accounts of her empathy, sensitivity, and generosity didn't surprise me at all.

Back in 1996, George Gray and his Stage One Productions helped me give a poetry reading at a storefront on Morehead Street. Pam was among the precious few who attended that night and was kind enough to buy one of the books I had printed up for the occasion.

But it was Shoemaker who unloaded the biggest bombshell about Pam's generosity, taking the wraps off a confidence he had kept for over a quarter of a century while she lived. When Actor's Theatre of Charlotte was nothing more than an idea, Pam not only stepped up to co-found the company, she wrote a check "for five figures" to make it happen.

So I left Pamela Hunt-Spradley's memorial more convinced that she was underappreciated in this town — by Charlotte audiences, who never realized that any drama, comedy, or musical she was involved in was worth seeing and by a new generation of theater artists who were mostly absent from the Saturday morning remembrances. Even back in her heyday, Pam to me was the poster child for a resentment that was often whispered across our theater community, that our resident professional theater company, Charlotte Rep, didn't sufficiently utilize the talent available in its hometown.

Above all, in a year that has seen the death of one of our finest actresses and one of our finest theater companies, Pam's generosity stands as a rebuke to the indolent board of directors that put Carolina Actors Studio Theatre to sleep rather than fight for its life. While the doors are already closed at CAST, the books aren't. When all creditors are paid and I'm at liberty to divulge the numbers, I'm confident of one damning implication: The five-figure check that Pam readily cut for a company that didn't yet exist was more than half the indebtedness that the CAST board of a dozen members couldn't raise or contribute — to keep alive a company that had solidly established itself in our community over two decades. When the boards at CAST and Rep gave up without a fight, people like Pam just weren't in their clueless calculus.

Nor were we. We can all feel underappreciated by the boards at CAST and Rep. Didn't nearby Greensboro raise $5 million to open Triad Stage in 2002?

Factoring in the dollar equivalents for 1987 and 2014, CAST actually needed just one Pam-sized contribution to keep its doors open. A phone call. But it's not only a conscientious board member who should have been on one end of the line. It's also someone who faithfully bought season tickets, someone in our theatre community who had the fundraising knowhow, or someone in our prosperous business community with some pocket change.

Instead the universal reaction when CAST folded — and when Rep folded in 2005 — was resignation. It's too late. Nothing can be done.

Well, here's my takeaway: it wasn't too late in 1987 when Pam cut her check, it wasn't too late in 2005 when Rep's board told us that Charlotte wouldn't support professional theatre, and it isn't too late now. Have Pamela Hunt-Spradley's faith and generosity truly vanished from our city, or have we simply grown content to see their potential remain untapped?

Another way to ask this question came bluntly from Jerry Klein when he recently sat down to lunch with me after a 10-year absence from the Queen City: "What the fuck has happened to this place?" Indolence, compounded by fatalism and indifference, would be my answer — all of them former strangers to our can-do city.

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