Mary Ann Scialdo left students with a song in their hearts — and a show to put on

CARROLLWOOD — When internationally renowned pianist Mary Ann Scialdo died July 1, she left four generations of music students with a song in their hearts — and a show to put on.

In a lifetime at the keyboard, Ms. Scialdo, 67, was as at home in a big-city concert hall as in a grade-school music class.

Teaching, she said, is what she was meant to do. She taught music at Miles Elementary and Webb Middle schools, before most recently serving as artistic director of the Carrollwood Cultural Center.

"If you can give to a kid, you get back the world," she said in a 2002 interview.

Standing just 4 feet 11 and weighing a mere 85 pounds, Ms. Scialdo was barely bigger than many of the children she taught. But her energy, passion and erudition convinced them — including those in a group called the Broadway Kids — that she was unique.

"It was an unbelievable experience that you couldn't get from anything else," said Chloe Chapin, 13, who will be a freshman at Plant High School this fall. "She just brought life to everything she did."

At the cultural center, where she led choral and community theater groups for adults and children, she had only one requirement for prospective members: "You have to have a song in your heart."

Now, after the short, fierce bout with cancer that led to her death, Ms. Scialdo's friends and students have one more show to produce, the last of many in her storied career.

In the months leading up to her death, Ms. Scialdo was directing the center's production of The Music Man, with a local cast of actors ages 6 to 85. She attended her last rehearsal less than two weeks before her death. On Saturday, the first rehearsal after her death, the cast and crew circled up on stage, joined hands and heard from Paul Berg, the center's executive director.

"Just understand that she loved this group so much," Berg said. "We're all here because she saw something in each and every one of us. Our goal now is to make Mary Ann so, so proud."

The musical, which opens July 16, will be dedicated to Ms. Scialdo, and she will be listed as the director in the program.

"Just because she's not here doesn't mean you can get away with any stuff she wouldn't let you get away with," Berg told the actors. "It's going to be her show."

• • •

Always in a rush, Ms. Scialdo was born in a hospital elevator in Yonkers, N.Y., on Sept. 21, 1942. Her birth mother was young and gave Mary Ann up through the New York Foundling adoption service, said her younger sister, Vicki Cuccia, who lived with Ms. Scialdo in Northdale.

Ms. Scialdo was raised by dentist Joseph Scialdo and his wife, Camille, a pianist. She started playing the piano at age 2 and played her first concert in New York at 6. She won a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School Pre-College Division at age 5 and continued there until she was 15.

"When you're around 200 other little geniuses, you know intuitively that you've got to work," she told the Times in 2002. Because of that, "the discipline I needed to succeed came very, very quickly."

Once, Cuccia said, a Juilliard teacher pushed Ms. Scialdo and another student through a demanding piano drill. Ms. Scialdo took it seriously, but she would later recall that the other student chewed gum and stared out the window. Ms. Scialdo told her classmate he had to work harder. No, I don't, Marvin Hamlisch reportedly replied. He added that he planned to grow up, compose music and make lots of money.

She crossed paths with other great composers, too, according to Ms. Scialdo's family and students. While working on the music for West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein came to Juilliard and had Ms. Scialdo stand in on the role of Maria during some trial runs.

In later years, Ms. Scialdo studied extensively in Italy and Russia.

"I lived in a villa in Italy with 25 other artists, painters, performers, musicians, composers," she said. Afterward, she concluded "pianists are a dime a dozen," while the real artists are composers. "To play and interpret their work is one thing. But to be able to create … "

After returning home to New York, she married advertising executive Charles A. Ortenblad III. The marriage lasted about 25 years, until his death in the 1980s.

In the mid 1990s, the widowed Ms. Scialdo again plunged into the serious study of music. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she went to Russia as a guest of the government.

She and others in the entourage packed their suitcases with food, which they shared with their Russian hosts, who, in turn, shared it with neighbors and friends.

"Russians will give you their last crumb," Scialdo said. She also learned to appreciate the spirit of Russian musicians who practiced in unheated, 30-degree halls. Upon returning to the United States, she won a grant that let her focus on playing the piano. That led to a concert in New York, where she devoted the first half of her program to Russian music.

"Every sound," wrote a music critic in the New York Times, "came from her heart."

• • •

Ms. Scialdo moved from New York, where she spent decades teaching music in Westchester County, to Northdale in 1999. Here, along with her teaching gigs, she played the piano and organ at Keystone United Methodist Church for about a decade.

This spring, Ms. Scialdo began dragging her left leg, Cuccia said. She suspected that it might be a problem caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. Then a doctor friend told her over dinner, no, that wouldn't do it and urged her to get checked out.

On April 21, she got her diagnosis: cancer in her brain, lung and liver. She received radiation treatment but quickly weakened and soon was in a wheelchair. In May, when a rumor circulated that the cultural center's board planned to eliminate her job to save money, dozens of people packed a meeting to support her.

She went into LifePath Hospice in Temple Terrace a day and a half before she died, Cuccia said. There, she received 31 visitors in a day, including a harpist and cast members from the Salerno Theater production of Man of La Mancha, which played at the cultural center last year. They sang The Impossible Dream, straying from the tempo at one point. ("It's kind of hard to sing when you're crying," Cuccia said.)

In her bed, Ms. Scialdo was, at best, barely conscious, but she seemed to notice the flaw. One hand rose, directing the music.

"I thought, 'Mary Ann, only you,' " Cuccia said.

Now the cast and crew of The Music Man have brought in new help to direct the musical and are pulling together to make the show a tribute.

Ron Manning, 70, of Odessa, who will play the role of Marcellus Washburn, said the group was already close, but Ms. Scialdo's death has made it closer.

"We all know Mary Ann is cheering us on," he said, "and saying, 'The show must go on.' "

Fast facts

If you go

What: The Music Man, performed by the Carrollwood Cultural Center Community Theater

When: 7:30 p.m. July 16 and 23, 3 p.m. July 17 and 24

Where: Carrollwood Cultural Center, 4537 Lowell Road, at Lowell and Casey roads, Carrollwood Village

Tickets: $20, $15 for center members

Information: Call (813) 269-1310 or visit carrollwood

center.org.

Service is July 31

Memorial service set for Mary Ann Scialdo: 2 p.m. July 31 at the cultural center. The service is open to the public.

Mary Ann Scialdo left students with a song in their hearts — and a show to put on 07/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 4:02pm]

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