Martin's Peter Pan still flits through our memories AN APPRECIATION

November 05, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck

Mary Martin claimed she couldn't remember a day when she didn't want to be Peter Pan.

And although the actress, who died yesterday at age 76, performed many other notable roles in a career spanning five decades, it is as Peter Pan that she will be best remembered.

At yesterday's sold-out matinee at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, "Peter Pan's" latest star, Cathy Rigby, came out in street clothes before the curtain went up and, with tears in her eyes, informed the audience of Miss Martin's death.

As theatergoers gasped, Ms. Rigby went on to say, "Anyone who ever had the good fortune of seeing her perform knows she will be part of the eternal spirit and life of 'Peter Pan.' Mary, we send you lovely thoughts and dedicate this show to you."

Although Miss Martin described "Peter Pan" in her 1984 autobiography as "perhaps the most important thing . . . that I have ever done in the theater," the 1954 musical, which played a mere 152 performances, was hardly her greatest stage triumph. The subsequent television broadcasts -- one of which was shown again last year and is now out on videotape -- are what cemented her identification with the role.

On stage, she made a name for herself playing characters far removed from the boy who wouldn't grow up. The highlights of xTC her theatrical career were portrayals of two very grown-up, love-struck heroines, both of which won her Tony Awards: Nellie Forbush, the naive, Navy nurse in "South Pacific" (1949), and a role that was written for her, Maria, the ebullient governess, in "The Sound of Music" (1959).

Ebullient would appear to have been an appropriate adjective for Miss Martin herself.

Hope Quackenbush, managing director of the Mechanic Theatre, spent three weeks with the actress last year during a Theatre Guild-sponsored Far East cruise. She recalled a disaster-prone day that began with a quick exit from a burning bus and ended in a monsoon. "She never complained," Mrs. Quackenbush said, adding that even when Miss Martin was well into her 70s, "She still had that wonderful quality of: 'The world is a wonderful place.' "

In a pre-performance interview yesterday, Ms. Rigby said that when she learned of Miss Martin's death, she was reminded of a passage from the novel by Sir James M. Barrie. "When children would die, Peter would take them halfway to wherever they were going so that they wouldn't be afraid," she explained. "I just have the feeling that the two of them are probably together right now, on their way."

For millions of children, Mary Martin's "Peter Pan" was the place where dreams were born. The story begins, of course, with Peter trying to find his shadow. Miss Martin's death makes it clearer than ever that it is her shadow for which all successive Peter Pans have been searching -- and her shadow in which they will always perform.

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