Obituary: Marie Connor Teets / Founded Comtra Theatre
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After being diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1980s, Marie C. (Conner) Teets had a dramatic vision.
The determined Ms. Teets, already an actress and community theater manager, decided it was worth going deeply into debt to purchase a barn along Route 19 in Cranberry, convert it into a year-round performance venue and round up a broad swath of volunteers just as dedicated as she was to providing family-oriented entertainment.
The result has been three decades of musicals, comedies and dramas at Comtra Theatre, with Ms. Teets overseeing it all as founder, manager, frequent director, occasional actress, sometimes box office cashier and more. She was the theater's heart and soul as well as matriarch of the loose family of performers and technicians who have supported her vision.
Ms. Teets, a longtime resident of New Sewickley originally from Rochester, died Sunday of cancer at Sherwood Oaks retirement community in Cranberry, where she had relocated last year. She was 79.
"She fought so many bad diagnoses over the years" without letting others know how sick she was, said Jeanne Donovic of Sewickley Hills, a performer and director at Comtra since 1996. "She had started her own theater because she said, 'If I'm going to have limited time, I'm going to do what I love.' "
Neither Ms. Teets, her doctors nor anyone else realized how long that time would stretch, through show after show such as "The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma!" "Guys and Dolls" and her personal favorite, "Arsenic and Old Lace." She performed in that comedy as one of the aunts two years ago while heavily medicated for pain, although no one could tell from her performance, said a longtime collaborator, Robert Hockenberry of Cranberry.
"If she was a performer, it would force everyone else to step up their game, not by anything she would do or say, but by her example," Mr. Hockenberry said. "And she was very good at making everyone feel not only important to the show but also that they'd done very well with their part, and that endeared a lot of people to her."
Ms. Teets described herself as a shy person who found she enjoyed the spotlight in performing roles in one way or another since childhood, although her income always came by other means.
She worked briefly as a teacher after graduating from Geneva College, then spent 30 years as a sales representative for TWA airline. She started her own agency afterward, Affordable Travel, arranging and leading tours to Niagara Falls, London and elsewhere. Through the years, she was a community performer for many troupes, including the Regent Theater in Beaver Falls; the Red Barn in Franklin, Beaver County; the Chippewa Players, and others.
Her theater management skills developed in the late 1970s as leader of the East-West Dinner Theater in Cranberry. Its shows were held in a tent in a restaurant parking lot, with men at the ready to grab onto the poles holding up the tent whenever a strong storm came through.
Ms. Teets had the foresight to seek something with more stability and permanence in the fast-growing area, leading to purchase of a vacant Route 19 barn and farmhouse. She had to talk her husband, Clifford, a successful cattle farmer, into going into debt to help finance it.
Resourceful renovations -- the refreshment stand was an old TWA ticket counter purchased for $100, and the seats for $2 apiece came from a Jehovah's Witnesses hall -- led to a 135-seat theater-in-the-round that opened in 1984, where new shows have been presented every few weeks throughout the year.
It was not a place for controversial or avant-garde theater -- "We're in the Bible Belt here," she would explain -- but it has been successful and busy for a long span under the nonprofit organization headed by Ms. Teets. Her daughter, Ellen Rinestine of Imperial, said Comtra will continue at least through this year, with a tribute performance for her mother likely in the near future.
In addition to her daughter and husband, Ms. Teets is survived by a son, Cecil Teets of Cranberry.
Devlin Funeral Home of Cranberry is handling arrangements.
First Published February 15, 2013 12:00 am