In celebration of Cherie Mason: an exemplar of the Opera House mission to use the performing arts to create excellence in all the way we perform our lives.
Part I of a 4-part series on the life and distinguished career of Cherie Mason, based on a 2016 interview with Judith Jerome, founding co-artistic director of Opera House Arts.
Part I: ENERGY
“When my mother put me to bed at night, she would open the door after a little while and say, ‘Cherie, are you sleeping? What are you doing?’ And I would say—‘I’m having a play.’ I remember those words distinctly: ‘I’m having a play.’ And I was, as I went to sleep, having a play. . . And doing all the parts.”
Our first burst of laughter fills Cherie’s dining room. It’s an afternoon of laughter and tea, the tape recorder running. Cherie Mason delivers a line with impeccable timing—and knows herself well.
She dramatized storybooks, and would “drag my little neighbor children in. I had a book on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and so I picked seven poor little children, my buddies, for each of the dwarves—and I of course was going to play the lead. After a few minutes they were very bored with this idea and didn’t want any part of it. And I just stamped my foot and said, ‘We are going to rehearse this tomorrow and you’d better show up.’ Well they didn’t show up. So that became a problem. I don’t know how that ended . . .
I, Judith speaking now, had plays, too; also circuses. I dreamed a real trapeze, hung in the sky. Mary McGuire told us years ago how she and her sister and their friends would for weeks after seeing a traveling show at the Opera House perform and re-perform it. From where does such wonderful personal arrogance in a child arise? Eschewing expertise, embodying amateurishness, in the sense of working from love and ownership—to take something into your body and know you can do it? To put up the posters and invite the neighborhood and charge the nickel? How does a life in theater begin? And what are the paths it takes? In Cherie Lee’s case they were multiple. Mimicry is basic to how we learn the world, but what is the impulse behind performance?
“As a child I lived in Milwaukee, WI, and that was certainly not a mecca for theater. But I vividly remember my first experience. The musical, Oklahoma, came to Milwaukee and my mother allowed me to buy a ticket—we never had a lot of money, but she was so good. I was in peanut heaven! I was so swept away by that musical that [at the end] I was frozen in my seat, and people all around me were leaving. I couldn’t move. And I didn’t move until they were turning the lights out on the stage, and the house was going dark. And then finally I got up. And I’m not sure I ever got over that—and I’m not sure that I have ever had more of a reaction to anything in my adult life. I thought, oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful, to be on that stage! But it never occurred to me that I ever could be.”
Anni Lee (nee Wernitznig) was Cherie’s unstoppable, slightly outrageous, mother. Who was she to be able to lay the groundwork to support this daughter’s energy, ambition, and grace? Anni, too, had her moment in theater. The Pabst Blue Ribbon company “had an auditorium right near the center of town, and my mother in her early days—she was one of the first women to bleach her hair; she was really a flapper, I’m afraid. One of those. She was in a swing once in a stage production of the Pabst Theater. She was swinging and singing on stage. She was VERY proud of that, and was quick to tell everyone that she had been on the stage. So I inherited the stage—and inherited the bragging!”
Anni raised Cherie on her own, and theater was not a regular part of their lives; the ticket to Oklahoma was a one-time treat. But Anni had the fancy that Cherie should be a ballet dancer, so she enrolled her in lessons. “A Russian lady taught the ballet classes. She had a long Russian name, and taught in a beautiful rehearsal hall, surrounded by mirrors—it was quite elegant!—but you had to do your homework! You had to learn a tour jete and all these things—but where was I going to do it?! We lived in this crummy little apartment building, with narrow halls—I think they were about 4’ across. Well, I practiced in the hallway. I would pray to God that no one opened a door—in the middle of a tour jete—as I was flying by! Fortunately no one ever did.” But it was embarrassing, somehow, practicing in the hallway. “Also, it just didn’t seem like the way I was supposed to go.” She informed Anni. “I think that was the same week I dropped a watermelon in the elevator.”
After she graduated from high school Cherie lived at home and for the first year attended Marquette University. “But then I couldn’t stand it, and I decided that I just had to go to Northwestern University [in Chicago], because that’s where all the theater was. Northwestern had a wonderful speech department. Paul Lynd and Charlotte Rae (also from Milwaukee) were graduates. And Cloris Leachman. These were all just icons to me. So I applied for a scholarship to Northwestern, and I got it! I lived with a family and did their cooking, and took care of their children.” And carried a full load at Northwestern. The trouble with being a theater student is that productions in non-conservatory programs are outside coursework—you have to do them in your spare time, and Cherie didn’t have any spare time. “So it was a mixed blessing—to have all that in front of me but not be able to participate.”
Nor did a direct road to theater open up to her after graduation. When she transferred to Northwestern it was with the idea that her credentials from such a prestigious program, plus the contacts she made there, would provide an automatic entre. But it didn’t turn out to be so—and her financial situation required that she earn a decent salary at once. She had been doing radio and voice work in school, in the Speech department. She found an ad in Broadcast magazine. “Radio stations that were looking for help took out ads there. And that was how I got my first job!” But not right away. Anni called from Milwaukee and said, “You’ve got a letter here, somebody from a radio station in Texas.” “And I said, well open it! And it said, ‘Come and talk to us!’ In Texas! I thought how am I going to do this. But of course Anni encouraged me. So I got on a bus and went down to Texas, to Austin, and I remember sleeping in the basement of the YWCA. We all had little cots, and that’s how I could afford to make the trip. Well, they were happy to see me, but they said, ‘We didn’t promise you anything, and we just don’t have anything right now.’ So now I’m stuck down there. And I don’t have any money. And my mother gets another message, and this one is from Montana: a 250 watter [the minimum wattage to get a radio station on the air at that time], in the heart of the Judith Mountains, in Montana. This was a legitimate job offer for $32.50/week.” Cherie took the job and got to Montana by sleeping on a Greyhound bus, loaded with cowboys. The cowboys called her ma’am and invited her to meals, “and I’d say, oh yes, thank you, yes.” With her disarming grace. “And if I was afraid of any impropriety—I’d sit up in front with the driver; there was always a seat opposite him—so that’s how I made my way from Austin to Montana.
“I didn’t even go home. I was afraid the job would be filled. I thought if I don’t get there in time they’ll give it to someone else. So, anyway, that was the beginning!