In a variety of ways, the spirit of what has become a tradition among Peter Pan productions over the years continues through the efforts of Cathy Rigby who currently soars into the hearts of audience members young and old at The Mansion Theatre in Branson.
This year Rigby and the Mansion’s production of Peter Pan are combining their efforts to benefit the Jerry Lewis Labor Day weekend MDA telethon that serves to assist children with muscular dystrophy and to aid in medical research.
“We want to do everything we can to help children with life-threatening illnesses,” said Rigby, readying for one of her eight weekly performances of the classic Broadway musical. “The arts have a wonderful way of lifting kids out of their distress, if only for a while, and sometimes they arrive at a place where healing is made easier.”
During performances of Peter Pan, The Mansion Theatre sells small jars of glittery fairy dust, the proceeds of which will go to the MDA telethon. Fairy dust, of course, is a prominent prop in the hands of Peter who sprinkles it on the hope-filled Darling children to enable them to fly with him to Neverland and a riveting adventure among Indians and swashbuckling pirates.
“I’m honored that we’ll be able to present Jerry Lewis with a check from The Mansion and Peter Pan representing the hope of thousands of kids and their parents for a quick cure to neuromuscular disorders,” Rigby said. The annual Jerry Lewis MDA telethon has been a staple of Labor Day weekend television viewing since 1966 with earlier fundraisers staged by Lewis in the 1950s. Last year, as the nation focused on the Gulf Coast and Hurricane Gustav, the show still managed to raise a record $65 million dollars for research and direct aid to victims of dystrophic diseases.
In the more than two decades that the actress and former Olympic athlete has embodied Peter Pan and brought a fresh and physical dimension to his character, Rigby has witnessed the joy of countless children as “Peter” connected with them while they were struggling with health issues and the rigors of their treatment.
Of the many stories, she particularly remembers how a five-year-old boy named Jeffery, bald from chemotherapy, was dressed as Peter Pan and showed her how he could growl at pirates and keep them at bay with his toy sword. “When I finally had to leave,” Rigby recalls, “this courageous little boy said to me, ‘Thanks, Peter Pan, for taking my needles and pain away!’
“And then there was a girl we met in Boston, no more than ten years of age, no hair on her little head; she was facing a lot of challenges. We met her on stage and put her in the harness so she could actually fly like Peter Pan. She started to cry a little, and I said to her, ‘Honey, are you sure you want to do this?’ She indicated that she did. And, as she started to ascend, she called out, ‘Look, Mommy! I’m finally free!’”
In addition to personifying Peter Pan and helping The Mansion Theatre raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Cathy Rigby is also the national spokesperson for Discovery Arts, an organization that uses the arts to reach out to thousands of patients in children’s hospitals across the country. “At no cost to the children or their parents, we bring in programs of music, art, dance and drama to help make hospital stays a little brighter for those suffering from cancer, blood disorders and other serious illnesses,” Rigby said. To that end, Discovery Arts has launched its “Grateful Dollar” campaign. “We are asking everyone in our audiences to donate a ‘Grateful Dollar’ in honor of every healthy child they know to help a sick child in the hospital.” The campaign hopes to raise $100,000 this year.
The program enlists the help of artful volunteers and even the contributed services of celebrities to entertain hospitalized children and engage them in the arts. Rigby believes it is a way for children to express their feelings about their illnesses. “So many of them are desperate to have fun again, to feel normal again,” she said. “Exploring music and art is a pathway to emotional health that frequently helps with their treatment and recovery.