In Memoriam: Sally Buckstone

Sally Buckstone

“My dear friends,” she would always say—and several generations of the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island and, later, the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island braced themselves for what would come next.

Sally Buckstone directed more productions by the Workshop/Light Opera Company and its Yiddish spinoff than anyone else to date—indeed, probably more than the rest of us put together—and she could be demanding.  When she sat the company down to listen, it was usually to hear our own failings noted, explained and corrected.  But she wanted us to know that she was on our side, and even the harshest critique began: “My dear friends … “

The genesis of the G&S Workshop of Long Island came when Martin Waters found himself in England during World War II.  A Gilbert & Sullivan buff of long standing, he’d hoped to see whatever the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company was doing while he was in London—but was surprised to discover in addition that seemingly every neighborhood of London and every English suburb and country town had its own AOS (Amateur Operatic Society), most of them specializing in Gilbert & Sullivan.  In his relatively brief time in England, he was able to see productions of eight or nine different Savoy operas, an experience which thrilled him … and planted an idea in his head which would come to fruition in 1954, nine years after the war’s end.

Waters and his brother-in-law, another hardcore G&S buff named Norman “Buddy” Packer, decided that Long Island would be fertile soil for a G&S company.  They faced a major obstacle, however:  Neither of them knew anything about doing theater.  Fortunately Packer was currently teaching an adult-education course in Gilbert & Sullivan at Merrick High School alongside Sally Buckstone, a 30-year-old from the Bronx who lived in Oceanside and had been active in professional and semi-professional theater in Manhattan.  She’d acted, sung and even directed some musical revues.  A bit skeptical about the prospects of doing comic opera in Long Island, she proved unable to resist the eloquent appeals of Waters or the humorous banter of Packer, and she agreed to join forces with them for a trial production of “The Mikado,” featuring “graduates” of that adult-education course, to be held at the Camp Avenue School in Merrick as a fund-raiser for the school’s PTA.

That production was received well enough that Buckstone agreed to stick around for one more show … and ended up staying for more than 40 years.  She directed the company’s English-language productions until 1984, and stayed with its Yiddish-language sister organization into the mid-1990s before relocating to Pembroke Pines, Florida.  There she immediately resumed directing community theater—including, of course, a Gilbert & Sullivan revue.

She returned to Long Island in 2017, however, spending her last days in Atlantic Beach, not far from the home in Oceanside where she’d lived for decades.  She reconnected with old friends—including old comrades from G&S and the Oceanside Theater Guild, for which she’d directed many Broadway musicals—and was very much her old, glamorous self until she died suddenly on November 3, at 93.

Buckstone was a gifted singer and actress, and often performed in the company’s early years—Yum-Yum was a particular favorite role.  However, her greatest gifts were as a director, and it is in that capacity that she’s most remembered today.

Beyond a sure theatrical sense and a thorough familiarity with the G&S canon, she brought to the job a knack for handling performers, who as a group tend to be, shall we say, temperamental.  A surrogate mother to one, a rigorous taskmaster to another, coaxing, cajoling, scolding and encouraging as necessary, she brought out the best in generations of performers, with the Workshop/Light Opera Company and many other groups as well.

She was a dear friend, and we will miss her.

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