She put the “Player” into “Most Valuable Player”—the more so because she never made a big deal out of her own value.
From 1965 to 1980, Doris Smith was the constant factor in one of the best periods in the history of the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island. The singers came and went, as did the directors and music directors, but the one thing everybody could count on was that, at every rehearsal and at every performance, there at the keyboard would be Doris (if anybody ever called her “Mrs. Smith,” I never noticed it), impeccably dressed, immaculately prepared and always focused on the music. She was a charming woman who was very social and sociable—but not while work was going on. Doris was a professional, and when it was time for music, she had time for nothing else.
This was all the more important because, for much of this period, the company didn’t work with an orchestra. Doris was its orchestra, then, her 10 fingers standing in for 20 or 30 instruments—and more than holding their own. At a time when the company desperately needed a top-quality accompanist, it got the best accompanist it ever had.
Doris’ value to the company began with her mastery of the keyboard, but it didn’t end there. She was a cheerful, attentive accompanist, never losing her temper with either music director or singers if she had to repeat the same passage again and again, always ready during breaks to give up her own time to run a nervous chorus singer through his or her part. Perhaps her greatest asset to the company was her reliability, however: In 15 years with the company, Doris missed only a handful of rehearsals and only a single performance.
(Doris liked to admit that one lapse: It was because the company had two performances at the same time on the same day, and even she couldn’t be in two places at once.)
The company’s value to Doris was almost as great as her value to it: A superb musician in her own right, she was a passionate admirer of Sullivan’s music, always ready to point out some subtle felicity of harmony or rhythm to anyone interested in learning something new. Her fellow company members were also her friends, some among her closest friends; after she moved away from Long Island, many of them stayed in touch with her for decades.
And when Doris—then divorced from her first husband—met the company’s new business manager and assistant tech director, Don Blake, the sparks that flew were all but visible: More than two dozen of us sang at their wedding in 1978.
In 1980, when the Blakes announced that they were leaving Long Island and moving upstate to Summit, New York, it was the end of an era. The company has had many brilliant accompanists since then, including music directors and non-music directors alike: Ray Osnato, Andi Stryker-
Rodda, Stephen O’Leary and Thomas Z. Shepard are only some of the names on that role of honor. But none has had the staying power, the year-in and year-out devotion to the company that was the hallmark of Doris’ years at the keyboard. She worked with four directors, six music directors and untold hundreds of singers, and every one was the better for working with her.
There was more to Doris than her work with the company. First on Long Island and then in Summit, she was a brilliant music teacher who trained generations of piano students. In her late 80s she was still hard at work in her studio in Summit (equipped with not one but two superb pianos), turning piano players into musicians.
She was as valuable to the churches she attended as she was to the company, serving as accompanist, choir director and all-around musical resource; she played for the Christian Community Church of Faith in Summit until the last months of her life. Moreover, Doris was the best kind of Christian, generous with her time, her money and her heart to anyone who needed help, a fine woman whose character and good nature were the best advertisement her faith could ever receive.
Doris spent 90 years on this earth, and she did more good in any one of those years than many of us will do in our lifetimes. Her influence will still be felt as long as any of the singers who sang with her or any of the pianists who studied with her continue to make music.