Rosalee T. `Kitty' Countess, 87, usher and attendant at Lyric Opera House

February 03, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Rosalee T. "Kitty" Countess, a retired usher and cloakroom attendant whose cheerful and unflappable demeanor endeared her to Lyric Opera House patrons for more than two decades, died in her sleep Sunday at Milford Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Pikesville. She was 87.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Miss Countess was a graduate of St. Peter Claver parochial school and, after leaving Frederick Douglass High School, worked as a housekeeper with her mother during the 1930s.

During World War II, she was a riveter building airplanes at the old Glenn L. Martin Co. plant in Middle River. When the war ended, she returned to housekeeping work.

In the early 1970s, she took a job as an usher and cloakroom attendant at what was then the Lyric Theatre, where she made sure that concert and theater patrons arrived at the right seat and at the end of the evening went home wearing their own hats and coats.

"I started here in the 1980s as an usher, and she taught me how to deal with the public," said Sandy Richmond, the Lyric's managing director.

"There's always a lot of pressure in the five or 10 minutes before the start of a concert or show, and it's very typical for a number of guests to drop off their garments simultaneously. However, there were never any problems because she was so efficient," Mr. Richmond said.

"Of the 2,500 patrons who might arrive at the Lyric for a performance, it wasn't uncommon for Rosalee to be responsible for hundreds of cloth and mink coats, hats and caps, umbrellas, knapsacks and bags," Mr. Richmond said.

Miss Countess, who did not drive, traveled by bus from her West Arlington Avenue home and refused to be deterred by bad weather.

"No matter how deep the snow was or what the weather, she always managed to get here. And when the house opened up, you could count on her being here. She really had to be seriously ill not to come to work," said Martha "Fran" Dearman, the Lyric's head usher since 1988.

Workdays of 12 hours or more were not uncommon, especially on weekends with matinees and evening performances.

Between the rushes of audience arrival and departure, Miss Countess could relax a bit. She enjoyed watching young Bachelors Cotillon debutantes as they made their way to the dance floor of the Lyric or listening to an opera or Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert. She also would stand in the back of the theater or slip into an empty seat and take in a performance of Cats or Miss Saigon.

Her work brought her in contact with performers who played the Lyric, among them Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston, Patti Labelle, David Copperfield and Jay Leno.

"When Jay Leno's limousine dropped him at the wrong door, it was Rosalee who helped whisk him backstage," Miss Dearman said.

"One of her favorites was David Copperfield, who gave her an autographed picture. She always called him a `handsome brute,'" said a great-niece, Kathy C. Countess.

Miss Countess, who retired in 1992, enjoyed cooking, crocheting and knitting.

"And whenever you went to her home, she was listening to an opera," her great-niece said.

She was a communicant of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church, 1542 N. Fremont Ave., where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today.

Miss Countess is also survived by a niece, Colleen Countess of Baltimore, and other great-nieces and great-nephews.

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