As I walked into Key Auditorium to see Talent Machine's production of "Singin' In the Rain" in the late summer of 1994, I knew that Bobbi Smith was an exceptionally talented director and choreographer.
I had seen her leggy, high-kicking "42nd Street" the year before, complete with Bobbi's vintage-1930s "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" montage in which the entire stage was transformed into a fleet of sleeper car berths.
Smith's "Grease" and "Black Patent Leather Shoes" of previous years had been zingy affairs, and each of her Talent Machine Revues had left me shaking my head in wonder at the impact her tutelage was having on young song-and-dance man Matt Garrity, and on 12-year-old dancer Jessica Crouse. So graceful they were, so mature and so quintessentially show biz.
Even so, as I walked into the theater that August night 6 1/2 years ago, I hadn't fully recognized the magnitude of what Bobbi Smith, who died last week at 60, had been up to with that first generation of kids in Talent Machine, her performing arts organization for the young.
After 2 1/2 hours, the final bow taken and the auditorium emptied, I still sat in my seat shaking my head in disbelief. This spirited woman with a flouncy blond ponytail sticking straight up had just made it rain torrentially in a St. John's College auditorium not even built as a theater.
She had inspired a high schooler - Garrity, then 15 - to dance for laughs, to dance for beauty and to cling effortlessly to a wet lamppost with such Kelly-esque flair that I was almost in tears.
She had gifted young Broadneck High School student Justin Brill making 'em laugh a la Donald O'Connor with some of the most vigorous and clever choreography I'd ever seen.
The show had it all.
The next summer, she did it again, eclipsing even herself with a "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" that is still the best show I've covered in the 13-plus years I've written for this newspaper. Everything worked. Young Brill couldn't have been better as the biblical dreamer who rises to greatness in ancient Egypt.
Karen Zucco of Arundel High School sounded better than any of the "Narrators" who had recorded the role professionally. Every production number - and in "Joseph," they come in droves - was full of color, humor and pizazz.
"Everyone in show business talks about the shows they did in high school," says Zucco, a graduate of Hartt College of Music who is working professionally in the theater. "I listen to them, think back to what we achieved with Bobbi and just smile. What she got out of us was just the best training anyone could have had."
That theme was echoed publicly Sunday evening at a memorial gathering for Bobbi Smith that had Key Auditorium overflowing with hundreds of her friends, colleagues and Talent Machine kids.
"She was my mentor, my teacher, my biggest supporter and my adult friend," said Nicole Roblyer, who turned in a marvelous performance as faded film star Dorothy Brock in that 1993 "42nd Street" and is now another former Smith student making a career for herself on the professional stage.
"I stand before you, a young man with a love for dance, a love for the stage and a love for the creative friends I never would have made had it not been for Bobbi Smith," said University of Virginia student Garrity, summing up the sentiments of so many in attendance.
Perhaps the most touching words offered at Sunday's memorial came from Bobbi Smith herself. When so many of her alumni surprised her in December by joining her current Talent Machine for the finale of the company's 10th anniversary Christmas show, the director, her eyes glistening with tears, looked up at the stage and said, "I feel like my whole life is right there in front of me."
A director to the end, she had composed the best epitaph a dogged, dedicated, devoted woman of the theater could possibly have.