In Memoriam: Buddy Packer

Norman “Buddy” Packer
September 28, 1918-October 6, 2007

There were plenty of actors who were better-looking than Buddy Packer, who had bigger voices, who commanded the stage with more brio.  But there weren’t many who were better liked among their colleagues than Packer was.

Among the trio who established what was originally known as the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island, Martin Waters brought the steel and Sally Buckstone brought the glamour.  Buddy Packer brought the twinkle, though, and you can’t do Gilbert & Sullivan without a twinkle.

A confirmed punster with a flair for improvisational song takeoffs, Packer was a born Savoyard, but it took his brother-in-law Waters (who was married to Packer’s twin sister)—and the stack of records he brought back from London in 1939—to trigger the addiction.  The records were the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s 1931 recording of Ruddigore, and Packer was smitten.

Waters may have gotten to Gilbert & Sullivan first, but Packer quickly matched him in fervor, acquiring the recordings of all 11 Savoy operas then available and virtually memorizing them, as well as reading exhaustively about the Victorian team and their operas.  He joined the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Society, a group of aficionados, and became its vice president; he even served as associate producer for a live television production of The Mikado on NBC in May 1950, and also sang the role of Pooh-Bah.

When Packer, by now an advertising executive, relocated from Kew Gardens Hills to Merrick in 1953 (his and his wife, whom he always referred to, a la The Pirates of Penzance, as “my well-loved Ruth,” moved in next door to their in-laws), Gilbert & Sullivan on Long Island was limited to an occasional school or community-theater production of one of the better-known operas.  Packer and Waters weren’t likely to let that stand, though, and when Packer was asked by a friend named Helen Marx, then president of the Camp Avenue School’s PTA, to come up with an idea for a fund raiser, it was natural that he turned to Waters and then they both turned to Gilbert & Sullivan.

The idea they came up with was an adult-education class in Gilbert & Sullivan, to be jointly run by Packer and Waters, that would present a concert version of The Mikado at the end of the school year.  Then Packer ran into Sally Buckstone, who had sung in his television production of The Mikado four years before, and learned that she was living in nearby Oceanside.  He recruited her to sing in his Merrick Mikado—and Buckstone, who already had extensive acting and directing credits, convinced him and Waters that it would be better to do a fully staged version with herself as director.

That production was erratic in quality, Packer admitted in later years, and its sets and costumes were sketchy at best—but the audience loved it, and it raised a lot of money for the PTA.  Marx promptly asked if there was anything else the three could do, and the result was a 1955 production of HMS Pinafore that was considerably more polished.  By the time they mounted The Pirates of Penzance in 1956, it was already being credited to the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop … of Long Island, not of Merrick.

Buckstone directed all of the company’s productions for its first 25 years, and Waters was, more often than not, the lead comic baritone.  Packer was never interested in the spotlight as such, and contented himself with singing in the chorus and occasionally essaying minor principal roles such as Pish-Tush in The Mikado.

His greatest contribution to the company came in the rehearsal hall, where his quick wit and easygoing charm helped soften the edges of Buckstone’s demanding direction and Waters’ perfectionism.  Packer made sure to introduce himself to every new arrival, and to make sure that he or she didn’t get swept away by a flood of words, music and staging.  When things got tense in rehearsal—as inevitably they do, now and again—Packer would drop in a pun or a whimsical parody line (“Frederic, save us!” “Beautiful Mabel, I would if I could, but I’m no Clark Gable!”) and defuse the tension.  His philosophy was a simple one:  Nobody was being paid, so, if rehearsals weren’t fun, nobody would stick around.  He made sure that they were fun.

Packer was almost 60 by the time I joined the company as a teenager in the mid-1970s, and his knowledge of seemingly every word in every song in every opera Gilbert & Sullivan ever wrote was intimidating—but then there was that twinkle.  Buddy didn’t talk as much as most of the others did, but he sat in the bass section, smiling over his score and clearly enjoying himself.  If a man of his experience thought this was fun, who was I to disagree?

The company held a testimonial dinner in Packer’s honor in 1982.  After 28 years with the company (and numerous terms on its board, in various offices), he and his well-loved Ruth were retiring to Coconut Creek, Florida.  (“They have plenty of cocoa,” Packer quipped, “but they need a couple more nuts.”)  The outpouring of affection seemed to leave him taken aback, but he took it in stride and twinkled more than ever.

And, of course, as soon as he arrived in Florida, he put together a series of lectures at Broward Community College—at least one of which featured his personal favorite G&S song, “My Boy, You May Take It from Me,” from Ruddigore.  Living on a development called Wynmoor Village, he promptly founded the Wynmoor Savoyards and staged performances of Trial by Jury, HMS Pinafore and The Mikado, as well as selections from most of the other operas.

Twenty-two years later, when the company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2004, we invited Packer, Waters and Buckstone to come north for one more testimonial dinner.  As it turned out, neither Packer nor Waters (at that point 85 and 86, respectively) was healthy enough to make the trip, and at the last moment Buckstone’s husband took ill, and she couldn’t travel.  We had the dinner, but their absence took some of the luster off it.

But not for long, because Buddy had sent videotaped greetings that got everybody roaring with laughter, as he trotted out some of his greatest hits as a punster (“have your Kate, and Edith too”), gently tweaked old friends and made sure—as he always did—that everybody was having a good time.

He may not have been there, but, if it weren’t for him, none of us would have been there either.  It wasn’t his style to point that out, but we knew it.  Those of us who’ve been around awhile still do.

–Gayden Wren

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