On Sunday, five days after the news of the untimely death of Marianne Challis, 58, friends and family gathered for a memorial service at the . Challis’s closest family members and friends were among the many speakers, making the afternoon service alternately sad, uproariously funny, and joyously celebratory of the love they said Challis had brought to all who had known her.
“Marianne always liked a full house,” said the Reverend Laura H. Whitmore, addressing the standing-room-only crowd of hundreds who had come from many parts of the country to honor her.
Karen McDonald, a church member, wrote to Rev. Whitmore, that she once told Challis she should write a book. “Marianne really lived the life of the old-time movies. She had come from the mid-west with talent to New York City. She made a life for herself, met her guy, and moved out to the country (“which,” Whitmore added with laughter, “is what I understand you New Yorkers call us”).
“A little girl comes to the city and makes it big, but that was after three successful beauty pageants, winning Miss Charleston/Delta Chi, and second runner-up as Miss Illinois," Whitmore continued. "She raised Lonnie and Abbie, and made us all feel like we were the most important person in her life.”
Whitmore also reminded the audience that life is fragile, bringing everyone back from the laughter to the solemn and true realization that a woman most oft described as vivacious will no longer walk among her friends.
The members of the church’s Teen Choir and Broadway Boot Camp Singers, accompanied by Phillip Bettencourt, who will take Challis’s place as Teen Choir Director, offered a soulful rendition of "You’ll Never Walk Alone."
Susan Terry, also a voice coach and long-time friend of Challis’, told those gathered at the church, “Marianne had a vision for kids in musical theatre, and 11 years ago she launched it.”
That was the year Challis’s husband Frank Root got a touring role in the show “42nd Street”, leaving Challis to get Broadway Boot Camp off the ground by herself, while Root “shuffled off to Buffalo.”
Broadway Boot Camp was a family project, according to Terry, who said that the camp has changed the lives of students who return year after year. Terry sang for her friend, “when lovely light would fade from view, they were you,” from the song, “They Were You”.
Rev. Paul Whitmore spoke about the kismet that occurred 19 years ago, when he first met Frank Root and Marianne Challis. Having just arrived at the church himself, Whitmore quickly found himself without a choir director. After an unproductive search for a replacement, in walked the Challis-Root family.
Challis asked about the music program, and Whitmore told her they were “in the soup” without a director.
“Marianne shared that she had been the Assistant Musical Director at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, and it was like a beam of light came down from the sky and angel wings filled the room!" Whitmore said.
Challis replied that she did not want to get back into that, but agreed to help out until they could find a replacement. “And she did that for the next 12 years,” Whitmore said.
Under Challis’s guidance, the children’s programs grew from about 30 kids to 180, with 50 to 60 kids in the choir.
Whitmore described Challis as a down-to-earth midwestern girl, mesmerizing in a T-shirt and jeans and dazzling in her show glitz and glamour. He added that she brought a lot of light and compassion to her ministry, and that her faith was no small part of her life.
Bob Logan, godfather to Challis’s daughter, met Challis when they were understudies in the San Francisco run of the 1979 "Side By Side by Sondheim." During the three-month tour, they bonded “big time” and remained close all those years, Logan said.
Challis played many roles throughout her life, including Nellie Fourbush from "South Pacific," Annie Oakley in "Annie Get Your Gun," and Fannie Bryce in "Funny Girl." which she performed with her husband Frank Root. Challis sang in the New York City Opera, and had been selected for the role by Beverly Sills.
Root and Challis met in a Summer Stock production in Milwaukee. “She was there all summer long, and I came in to do two shows,” Root said.
Challis injured her voice in 1986 during 'South Pacific," and she started working with Joan Leder, a voice pathologist, (who was described as ‘a pretty big deal’ by guests at the Root home) to restore her voice. A year later, she became Leder’s student, “then my assistant, and in 1990, she became my associate,” Leder said at the service.
Leder added they became great friends over the years, and only recently, they had spent time together in Martha’s Vineyard.
While Challis worked to restore her voice, she went eight years without singing in public. In 1994 she sang for the first time at the church.
“We all went, oh my God! We couldn’t believe it!" Whitmore said."This was first place she sang again in public, which she said it gave her a kick in the butt to get back to the biz.”
Challis went on to win the 2008 Bistro Awards Outstanding Female Vocalist of the Year and in 2011, she won a Manhattan Association of Cabarets award.
Some of Challis’s students included Kathie Lee Gifford, Amy Adams (for the movie “Enchanted”), and John McEnroe, who hoped to be able to sing while playing the guitar.
Her extensive work with Academy Award-winning Alan Menken, musical director and composer of The Little Mermaid, The Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast and more, included working with cast members and incoming stars.
David Friedman, a speaker at Sunday’s memorial, asked the audience to perform some of Challis’s vocal warmups. Singers know warm-ups may be necessary but can sound humorous, which resulted in laughter in the church.
“When I worked with Marianne, I would think I was doing it perfectly and she would say, ‘There is a lot of tension under your arms,” Friedman said. Again the crowd erupted into laughter.
“Uncle” Bob Logan, who staked claim as Challis’s favorite friend, broke down the meaning of all of her names: “I have been thinking about the power of her name; Mary, the iconic mother; Chalice: sacred instrument to restore and renew; Root: strong indispensable, source of sustenance. Marianne was all of these things.”
He noted that had Challis not passed away, the weekend would have been a celebration of the 30th anniversary of her marriage to Frank Root. She passed away one day before that date.
Root’s sister Cat Lambert spoke of an early conversation she’d had with Challis about the challenges of marriage. Years later, Challis told her, “I hung in there. Who knew we would be so cute together?”
Lambert said that Challis spoke often about her husband, her children, “and you," but she didn’t talk about her self. “You knew who she was, because she knew who she was. She had the humility to see the talent in you. You were so important to her," Lambert said.
"Our Marianne: A beautiful voice is stilled, a loving heart is quiet , a bemused spirit at peace.” In a mid-western drawl, Lambert then prayed, “Father, we give you our Marianne. Watch over her, keep her, and above all, put her to work. Your heavenly choir will be awesome!”
Scott Barnes, who had directed all of Challis’s shows, could barely contain the laughter or the tears at various points in his memorial of Challis. He said that he cherished his relationship with her and told stories of Absolut Cosmopolitans and Aunt Geneva. With a mixture of sadness and glee, he said, “And I don’t know if you ever dealt with her talking about me, but I sure dealt with her talking about you!”
Speaking with great fondness, he said, “I took such delight in my friend.She had a predilection for boy tap dancers and when she met a straight one, she married him. Frank is always the funniest man in the room, so they are a cute couple.”
The night before Challis passed away, she spent 90 minutes on the phone with Barnes in which they talked about gratitude and generosity.
“She had to have known that she saturated so many people's life experiences," Barnes said. "And when the moon is not so new, we will find her all around us, whenever there is generosity of spirit, whenever you laugh at yourself, or take the high road, then you will know we were blessed to have known her.”