Cooper: Zane 'First Lady of Theater'

Cooper: Zane 'First Lady of Theater'

December 15th, 2012 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Helen Hayes often was referred to as the "First Lady of the American Theater," but if there was such a thing as the "First Lady of Chattanooga Theater," it was Ann Zane.

Zane died earlier this month in South Carolina, and a local memorial service will be held in January.

It's difficult to think of December and Christmas without her. For 14 straight years through 2006, Zane had a role in the holiday production at Oak Street Playhouse at First-Centenary United Methodist Church. I shared the stage with her for a number of those shows.

Before that, Zane did what must have been scores of roles at the former Backstage Theater in Brainerd. She also tread the boards at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre and probably wherever else there was a stage in the 1970s and 1980s.

To name just a few of Zane's roles, she was Ethel Thayer in "On Golden Pond" at Backstage, Dolly Levi in "The Matchmaker" (the nonmusical forerunner of "Hello Dolly") at Oak Street Playhouse and Daisy Werthan in "Driving Miss Daisy" at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre.

Whether it was comedy, drama or murder and, well into her 80s, she was up for a role.

"Ann was a wonderful woman," says Mike Tulloss, managing director of the Oak Street Playhouse. "In the theater world, she's what we call a money player, which means that anytime there was an audience there was an extra level of spark and energy in her performance."

Patti Gross did two shows at Backstage with Zane, portraying her daughter (with another local "theater institution," Bernie Sellman, as her father) in "On Golden Pond" and as one of the beauty shop regulars in "Steel Magnolias."

"They were absolutely amazing together," she says of Zane and Sellman. "It was only my third play. It was something to watch."

In "Steel Magnolias," as wisecracking widow Clairee Belcher, "she absolutely stopped the show every night," recalls Gross. "She'd do her thing, and the audience would just erupt. She couldn't leave the stage without the audience breaking into applause. It was hard to be on stage with her. You couldn't do anything but watch her."

While acting was Zane's passion, she also was a wife and mother, an artist, was cast in 15 commercials and voice-overs and was a member of the Chattanooga English Speaking Union, the Chattanooga chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and Trinity Presbyterian Church.

Shortly after we learned of her death, my wife and I were trimming our Christmas tree and came across various ornaments she had given me during the run of the various Oak Street Playhouse productions we had done together. Each was selected with relevance to the specific play and always included a handwritten card or note.

My wife always was partial to Zane's role as Lilla Barton in "The Moving of Lilla Barton," which centers on a woman who refuses to move from the rectory of All Saints Episcopal Church in Lowndes, Ala., after the death of her minister husband. The play, staged at Oak Street Playhouse at Christmas 1998 (and held over for a few shows in 1999), combined a discussion of death, bereavement, church politics and the questioning of faith amid warm comedy.

My wife liked it not only because Zane did a stellar job or because I played a major role as a peacemaking sheriff but because a similar situation to the one in the play occurred at a church in which she had been a member, Hope Hull United Methodist Church in Hope Hull, Ala. In that production, anyway, art surely imitated life.

Gross, who recalled that Zane always called her "Baby" after they worked together, says the stage was especially important to Zane after her husband, Stanley, died, and her kindness was manifest.

"She was just a Southern lady through and through," she says.