Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Memphis Theater Community Mourns the Loss of Andrew Clarkson and Leigh Walden

Posted By on Tue, Dec 22, 2015 at 11:43 AM

click to enlarge Andrew Clarkson, hero.
  • Andrew Clarkson, hero.
The Memphis arts community has suffered a double loss. Former AutoZone CEO and visionary arts patron Andrew Clarkson died last week following a long battle with emphysema. Before anyone had time to process Clarkson's death, news broke over social media that actress and arts administrator Leigh Walden had also passed.  

Clarkson, whose philanthropic work was honored at this year's Ostrander Awards,  gave a perfectly logical reason for committing himself so diligently to the arts after retirement. “I’m a terrible golfer,” he was quoted as saying. That had to be a tough admission for a man with a lilting Scottish accent and an Anderson plaid kilt that he'd wear on formal occasions. But instead of investing in his swing, Clarkson’s turned his troubles on the links into a sustaining and nurturing force for the Memphis arts community. His generosity has made a difference in the growth and development of ArtsMemphis, the Indie Memphis Film Festival, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Hattiloo Theatre, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, and Beale Street Caravan. Without Clarkson’s Jeniam Foundation, TheatreWorks — Midtown’s performing arts incubator — wouldn’t exist, and Playhouse on the Square couldn’t have built its new state-of-the-art performance center on the northeast corner of Cooper and Union.

Clarkson made Memphis a better place for art lovers and strong case can be made that impressive, multi-use spaces like the Hattiloo and Playhouse on the Square launched a domino tumble leading to the full revitalization of Overton Square. Here's to terrible golfers!

Walden's passing strikes a little closer to home for this theater blogger. The tiny powerhouse played my sharp-tongued mother in a production of The Lion in Winter at Germantown Community Theater. Her Eleanor of Aquitaine proved more than a match for her costar Jim Ostrander, the actor who played King Henry, and namesake for Memphis' annual theater awards. Walden was fantastic in the role made famous by Katherine Hepburn, but far more loving and maternal than Queen Eleanor ever was. She treated her stage sons like the real thing and even offered me a job in the family business so I could work in an environment that supported my theater habit.

Walden is probably best known locally for her spot on performance in the title role of Alfred Uhry's drama, Driving Miss Daisy. Professionally she worked as a teacher before going into business with her husband Al. In the mid-1990's she joined the staff at Germantown Community Theatre, becoming its executive producer in 2000. 

Tennessee Williams wrote of the "soft voice of the south." When she was off stage Walden's deep, drawling purr always put me in mind of that phrase. She was gracious, generous, and incredibly gifted. Though I saw her take many parts over the years, I'll always remember her as "mother," fiercely commanding the stage and hurling words like daggers:

"Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It's 1183 and we're barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history's forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little - that's how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world." 

She should have been on Broadway. 

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