Mama Bear: 'Good morning, Loves'

Chris "Mama Bear" Wilson was my introduction to the world of acting and show business. I hadn't thought about her in a while until I read of Patrick Swayze's death in September.

Mama Bear passed away in 2002 after more than 40 years in Houston as an actor and drama teacher to future stars at her Chris Wilson Actors' Studio. She performed in movies and on Broadway before returning to her native Texas. She held key roles in Houston theater, and then operated the Houston Music Theater in Sharpstown before founding her acting school and theater.

Sway ze took lessons f rom Mama Bear for two reasons: (1) she was the best in Houston, and (2) Chris and Patsy Swayze, Patrick's mother and a dance teacher, were close friends and worked together professionally numerous times.

Among Mama Bear's many success stories, in addition to Swayze, are: Randy and Dennis Quaid, Annie Potts, Lisa Hartman, Clint Black and Charles Robinson (Night Court).

Hartman's mother, Johnnie, was a publicist for performers and also Chris' friend.

One of Mama Bear's favorite stories was about Robinson. He had been working in the oilfields and walked into her studio one day and said, "There's gotta be an easier way to make a living." Chris said her response upon seeing Robinson was, "My Othello!"

Oh, and the Mama Bear name came from some of her acting students who said she could roar like a bear but she had motherly instincts.

As the "volunteer" director of Cleveland's Junior Miss Pageant in the late 1960s, someone gave me Chris' name as a good prospect to be a pageant judge. She graciously consented to come to Cleveland on Thanksgiving weekend and judge the pageant. Not only did she do that, but she also taught the girls about how to walk onstage, makeup and hairdos.

Then, she gave our first-year winner (and first runner-up at state) Dannette McMahon, a summer job and scholarship to Houston Music Theater. McMahon went on to a career of singing in shows, on cruises and in Las Vegas.

That first year of helping with the pageant forged our friendship of more than 30 years. She returned for two more years, not as a judge, but to help coach the young women in the pageant. She also convinced Patsy Swayze and Johnnie Hartman to be judges.

One of my favorite early memories of Chris Wilson was at that first Junior Miss Pageant. She said she wanted to see a "country newspaper," my description to her of what I did for a living. So, we arranged for her to come to the office. And, of course, she made a grand and dramatic entrance.

My newspaper staff was informed that the movie-Broadway actress and drama coach wanted to see the paper and meet the staff. They all gathered near the double door entrance at the appointed time as Chris swept through the doorway, dressed in a bulky sweater, mini skirt and boots, and said in her best cigarette-whiskey voice: "Good morning, loves!" Every chin, including mine, dropped.

When our youngest son was nine, we knew he was interested in music and drama, so we enrolled him in summer classes there. Later, after a year of college, he decided he needed more "stage time" than he was getting, so we called Mama Bear. She gave him a job at the studio-theater that summer to pay for more acting lessons. He wound up appearing in one of her productions where scouts from other theaters saw him and he began getting roles.

That led to two and a half years of acting and actually making a living at it. Then 9-11 happened and it changed his life. He decided to go back to college where he got a degree in broadcast journalism in which he's never worked a day, now ensconced in a good real estate career and married to a mortgage banker.

So, Chris Wilson immersed my family in theater, drama and music and it was a great experience for us and enriched our lives.

Thanks, Love.

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2009-10-22 digital edition

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