Tonight Richmond lost one of its more colorful personalities. My aunt, Sue Sneed Bahen, died and Richmond’s bright lights are dimmer for her passing. As general manager of the Carpenter Center, now Centerstage, she did everything from appeasing unpleasant entertainers to fixing toilets. I know because I was often right there with her.
It started as a secretarial job and I was thrilled when my aunt, “Tinky”, gave me a tour of the trashed Lowe’s Theatre. The dazzling theater of my youth was a sad old dame, worn out and tawdry. Even the famous “night sky” lights had been painted black. The cloud machine worked but not much else did. The plan was to restore her to her earlier glory as the Virginia Center for the Performing Arts. A daunting endeavor but my aunt had always loved films and theater so it was a dream job for her. She loved Lowe’s Theater “from the first time she walked into the place.”This is a woman who went backstage to swoon over Frank Sinatra and the big band leaders as a teenager, the girl who painted her eyeglasses red to be movie-star glamorous. A childhood friend tonight called her “a bright star.” Oh, she was.
I worked at C&P Telephone Company then, in marketing. Tinky rode to work with me every day and we often ate lunch together so I could see the progress and hear about the woes of restoration.One afternoon, she called and said “You told me about a telephone system that would work well here. Come over and sell it.” The truth was that I hadn’t even been trained in Centrex systems and was supposed to be implementing systems, not selling them, but I went. I promised the world and made the sale. As Sue and I walked from the building, she confided that the manager, Ted Stevens, had been frustrated with communication vendors and was relieved to have “Sue’s niece taking care of everything.” I admitted that I had no idea if the system really did what I promised it did, I was crossing my fingers that it would. Don’t worry, she said. We’ll make it work. Well, it did. I wore out a pair of flats exploring from roof to basement but my role went beyond planning what equipment was needed.
Renovations were completed, the opening gala was scheduled, and Carol Channing was starring in the premier performance of Hello, Dolly. Hours before the show, Sue called me in a panic. Ms. Channing’s telephone in the dressing room didn’t work. I ran across Grace Street, stole a screwdriver from a stage hand, and repaired the telephone. A background as a telephone installer comes in handy sometimes.
I think the Carol Channing episode was the last time Sue Bahen panicked about anything. She is credited with turning the center’s finances around. Before she was promoted to general manager, the Carpenter Center was going broke. My old ’58 pick-up truck was the “official Carpenter Center vehicle” because there was no money for anything. She finagled and coerced, charmed and threatened, anything to produce income. Her comment about booking everything except a wedding and a funeral was pretty accurate. I can’t help but wish we could hold her memorial service where she spent thousands of hours, once calculated as 900 hours of overtime. That’s an extra five months’ work per year. The only problem with sending Sue off to glory from Centerstage (besides the obvious ones: money & availability) is that she couldn’t ride in the floor of the car to get there (as she did when Robert Goulet wouldn’t allow “staff” to ride in his limo at 1 AM, she needed a ride… so she hid) and she couldn’t lock up afterwards, her last job every night. But she would love the idea of going out in such grand style.
Richmond owes a round of applause to the woman who retired in 1995 from the role of general manager but who shared the soul of the Carpenter Center until her death. More than family and friends who will mourn her passing. I think I saw tears sliding down the marquee tonight as Lowe’s/Virginia Center for the Performing Arts/Carpenter Center/Centerstage lost its best friend, Sue Sneed Bahen.

Sue Bahen, General Manager, General Everything,General period.

Sue Bahen, General Manager, General Everything.

Picture courtesy of Richmond Times Dispatch

Update:

Bob Foreman, who worked with Sue and was a close friend, sent this link to some pictures. Just a glimpse of some of the faces of this wild and crazy woman we all loved.

http://suebahen.blogspot.com/

The Richmond Times Dispatch did an article about Sue today. The link is: http://www.timesdispatch.com/obituaries/death-notices/

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