There is no shortage of Amsterdam Birthday Blog celebrant candidates for June 18th. For example, Felix Aulisi was born on this date. He’s the shoemaker’s son who immigrated to Amsterdam from Italy as a 12-year-old and grew up to become a revered Supreme Court Justice. Then there’s Sammy Pepe, who opened and ran one of Amsterdam’s most popular Italian restaurants and was also a noteworthy promoter of local boxing. Congressman Paul Tonko was also born on June 18. I believe he is the only congressman in our City’s history to be born here and to live here his entire life. All three of these gentlemen certainly deserve to be featured in their own Birthday Blog post, which should tell you just how much I admire the woman I will be honoring today.
Maria Riccio Bryce used to be my babysitter. Well actually, my working Mom would hire her to watch my younger sisters and brother during the summer months but when she was at my house I usually stuck around too. At the time, she was a student at Wilbur Lynch High School and one of the most talented student actors and musicians to ever grace the stage of the elegant Lynch auditorium. Back then she played a marvelous Anita in West Side Story, and absolutely nailed the lead role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.
After graduating from Lynch, she went to Manhattanville College, married an Englishman named Alan Bryce, who she had met in summer stock and then moved to London. The two of them founded and ran The Overground Theatre, which became one of that city’s leading fringe (think off-Broadway) theatres in London during the 1970’s. Then came the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher, whose Conservative Government ended subsidies for the arts, which in the high rent district of London meant the Bryces’ theatre could no longer afford to operate.
She and her husband decided to return to Amsterdam with their two young sons and a third on the way. To say Maria was not happy about the move would be a gross understatement. Slowly but surely, however, she reconnected with family and friends and watched her sons thrive in school, become fanatic followers of the New York Mets and get woven into the fabric of her old hometown. For Maria, Amsterdam was evolving from being a great place to grow up to becoming a great place to raise her own family. She’s never again left.
I reconnected with Maria when all three of her boys, Duncan, Andrew and Peter played on the Firefighters Wee Men baseball team I helped coach. Her husband became a de facto assistant on our coaching staff and Maria came to every game, often with her Dad, the late Pete Riccio, who was the guy who convinced Kirk Douglas, his best friend from High School to go with him to St. Lawrence College.
Once back in Amsterdam, Maria returned to her composing, writing and theatre direction at both Proctors and The Egg in Albany. Her play, Hearts of Fire, which commemorated the Schenectady Massacre was well received. Then in 2000, she responded to an advertisement she saw that was publicizing grant availability for a community art project. Maria’s marriage had just ended in divorce and her youngest boy, Peter had just left for his first year of college, making her the emptiest sort of an empty nester. She applied for the grant. She got it. The result was what I personally believe was one of the greatest gifts the City of Amsterdam ever received.
The idea for writing a choral work about Amsterdam had originally come to Maria as she was riding back to Amsterdam after bringing her Peter to Harvard. Her oldest boy Duncan had gone to MIT and the middle son Andrew, to Swarthmore. As she made her way back up the Mass Pike she started thinking about how big of a role Amsterdam had played not just in her life but also in the lives of her three boys. She began thinking of a way she could show her gratitude.
The result was The Amsterdam Oratorio, sixteen wonderful songs, each focusing on a different aspect of life in our old Rug City. One celebrated birth another death. Love, going to school, immigration, the mills, church, war, Maria brilliantly put to music and words the path of life so many of our families have followed as residents of this City.
I was just as impressed by Maria’s ability to put together a huge, multidimensional group of people to promote, stage and perform her work. Every aspect of the production was handled near flawlessly. Then, less than a month before the scheduled October 5, 2001 opening night, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our Country occurred. Maria’s first thought was to cancel the Oratorio but her crew argued that it needed to go on. Thankfully for Amsterdam, she listened.
I was one of the hundreds of people Maria and her staff had contacted to see if I was interested in working on the project. I offered to serve as an usher. I will never forget the impact that first performance had on me. The brilliance of Maria’s work was that every single person in the audience sitting in that packed Lynch auditorium could make a direct personal connection to every line of every song in that magnificent production and they did. After each of the three ninety minute performances of the Oratorio that took place, the long meandering hallway at Lynch that led from the auditorium to the parking lot exit door would be crammed with people. I can still see the tears and the smiles on their faces, hear the excitement in their voices and sense their pride and amazement at what they had just witnessed.
You know there have been lot’s of times people have asked me why I stay in Amsterdam. I wish they had time to listen to sixteen songs.
A few years ago, Amsterdam’s Bob Going got the brilliant idea to take a recording of Maria’s son Peter singing the song Requiem, from the Oratorio and synchronizing it with pictures of the young Amsterdam heroes who lost their lives in World War II. You can experience the power of this presentation and the incredible talent of today’s Amsterdam Birthday Blog Celebrant via YouTube.
I’m sure if Felix Aulisi and Sammy Pepe were alive today, they’d join Congressman Tonko and me in saluting Maria Riccio Bryce for her long and steadfast devotion to our Amsterdam and for her amazing Oratorio. Happy Birthday Maria!