In retrospect the history of the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island looks inevitable, but it happened only because many things came together at the same time, any of which could have taken an entirely different course. That they didn’t is due, more than to any other single person, to Martin Waters.
He was only one of the company’s three founders, but director Sally Buckstone was recruited by Norman “Buddy” Packer, and Packer might never even have heard of Gilbert & Sullivan if it weren’t for his brother-in-law, Martin Waters.
London in 1939 was a tinderbox, teetering on the edge of a catastrophic war with Nazi Germany. The newspapers and radio wires were alive with threats and reassurances, rumors and counter-rumors, and it seemed as if the whole country was on edge.
Marty Waters was having a good time, though. The 22-year-old American was in London to attend the Royal Academy of Physicians and Surgeons, and it was a trip he’d been looking forward to for most of his life, because Waters was a Savoyard—a devotee of the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan. One of his dreams was to see the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in London, and that dream was realized in 1939. If it involved a modest risk of being blown up in an air raid, well, Waters wasn’t going to let that stop him.
He came home from London with some great stories, many of which he shared with his brother-in-law, Buddy Packer (Waters was married to Packer’s twin sister, Billie). He also shared two other things, though, one of them at the time and the other years later.
The one he shared immediately was an old-fashioned record album from 1931, a portfolio of nine 78-rpm disks which represented only the second recording ever of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1887 gem, Ruddigore. It featured stars of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, though the star who caught Waters’ attention most was a guest star: patter man George Baker. Waters thought the recording was something exceptional and, when he played it for Packer, Packer was hooked. He became a passionate Savoyard, arguably even more so than Waters, and to the end of his long life there was no song he was more likely to burst into than “My Boy, You May Take It from Me,” the Act I patter song from Ruddigore.
It would be more than a decade before Waters would share the other thing he’d brought back, which was an idea. He had come to London hoping to see the D’Oyly Carte company perform two or three of the operas, but, in his relatively short time in London, Waters had actually been able to see 10 or 11 of the operas: To his surprise, he discovered that every small town in England—every neighborhood in London, even every individual church—seemed to have its own “Amateur Operatic Society,” most of which were dedicated to amateur productions of Gilbert & Sullivan. Such groups were rare in America, though. Waters was intrigued, but as World War II broke out around him, he was forced to put the idea on a back burner for the duration.
It wasn’t until 1953 that Packer came to him with an idea of his own. By this time the two brothers-in-law were living next door to each other in Merrick, and Packer had been asked to come up with a fund-raising idea for the Camp Avenue School’s PTA. He thought of Gilbert & Sullivan, and of his brother-in-law. Together they came up with the idea of an adult-education class in Gilbert & Sullivan—but one angled toward performance, to culminate with a concert performance of The Mikado.
When Packer added Buckstone to the mix, that performance evolved into a fully staged production in the spring of 1954. Its success led to HMS Pinafore in 1955 and then to The Pirates of Penzance in 1956, and by then Long Island had its first Gilbert & Sullivan company, the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island.
Waters was a mainstay of the company in its early years, serving as its president and also as its lead patter baritone (a particular favorite role was Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance). He was also the company’s conscience, a meticulous man who liked his Gilbert & Sullivan traditional in tone and execution, and expected his colleagues to do whatever it took to learn their lines and their staging. A perfectionist, he sometimes clashed with other performers, and was fortunate that his brother-in-law was always at his elbow to calm the waters with perspective and humor.
Gilbert & Sullivan was an enormous part of Waters’ life as a performer, but it was not the only part. By the 1970s he was appearing only occasionally with the Workshop: Frustrated by what he saw as the board’s timidity and its unwillingness to venture beyond the five or six most popular of the Savoy operas, Waters moved on to other community theaters on Long Island, playing musical and non-musical roles in a wide variety of shows. He continued to fill in with the company, though, especially if a Major-General was needed in a pinch.
His final break with what had become the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island came in 1983, when the company finally tackled his beloved Ruddigore after a hiatus of more than 15 years. Waters very much wanted to play the sinister Sir Despard Murgatroyd, but was denied the part—because, he believed, of company politics. A proud man, he left the company and didn’t look back for 20 years.
I hadn’t known Waters well in the 1970s and early 1980s, partly because he was 44 years my senior and partly because his perfectionism was intimidating: Buddy Packer was only a year younger, but infinitely more approachable. I got to know Waters pretty well in 1984, however, when he agreed to play Dr. Chasuble in Ernest, a musical version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest that I was directing (and, naturally, casting with the performers I knew best, my comrades from the Workshop: The cast also included Kim Dacey, Steve Miller, Gloria Montlack and Terry Pinzur, and Phil Gellis was the music director).
Waters showed up for the first day of rehearsal immaculately prepared. He’d not only mastered his part, but had reread Wilde’s play and had some lines of dialogue that he wanted to see restored. He wasn’t pushy about it, though, because professionalism was a byword with him, and part of that was respect for the director—even one young enough to be his grandson. I gave him some of what he wanted and didn’t give him some of it, and he closed his book and moved ahead.
I’d seen Marty in Gilbert & Sullivan, of course, but watching him tackle an original role was a revelation. He explored the part carefully, trying different things and seeing what worked. Without the shadow of D’Oyly Carte to dictate his performance, he turned out to have a creative flair and even a streak of bawdiness. He and Montlack (as Miss Prism, with whom he shared most of his scenes) were a high point of the show.
I never got to work with Waters again, partly because my directorial interests were mainly focused on Gilbert & Sullivan and partly because, a couple of years later, he moved south, first to Florida (where he appeared as a guest star with Packer’s Wynmoor Savoyards and performed extensively in community theater—a 1992 letter from Packer reports that Waters is about to appear in The Crucible and that both men are about to be in Guys and Dolls) and then to Baton Rouge.
We continued to correspond intermittently, and in 2003 I was pleased to find that Waters had finally gotten over his split with the company. I spoke with him on the telephone several times as we prepared for the company’s 50th-anniversary celebrations and, while health issues prevented him from attending, he sent best wishes to everybody and seemed happy to hear about our various goings-on.
It was, he said, a great source of satisfaction to him that the company he, Buddy and Sally Buckstone had slapped together with spit and baling wire in the early 1950s was still going strong as it headed into a new century.