Old cabins at Perry-Mansfield retain the spirit of ‘the Ladies’ who found the arts camp
Charlotte and Portia's spirits live on
Steamboat Springs — Rusty DeLucia is certain she can sense the artistic spirit of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp founders Charlotte “Kingo” Perry and Portia Mansfield, or “The Ladies” as they are often referred to, in the rustic cabins scattered in a grove of aspen trees on the western edge of Strawberry Park.
Perry, who died at 93 in 1983, and Mansfield, who died Jan. 29, 1979, achieved the unlikely dream in 1913 of founding a performing arts camp that would attract top talent to Steamboat Springs in an era when the town was still regarded as something of a frontier outpost.
“They are still here, their spirits are probably in every building at Perry-Mansfield, watching over us making sure we don’t do anything naughty,” DeLucia said this month with a sly smile.
Born Nancy Jane Kellner, DeLucia first attended Perry-Mansfield as a neophyte 13-year-old actor in 1955, when Perry and Mansfield were working their magic and coaxing the best out of young dancers, musicians and writers.
DeLucia reconnected this month with another Perry-Mansfield alum, Kay Uemura Henderson, who can recall firsthand the powerful personalities of the two women who created the camp’s legacy with a combination of empathy and tough love.
“We all worked so hard and tried to help each other,” Henderson said. “This was (and is) a place that helps everybody to be better actors, musicians and writers.”
For both Henderson and DeLucia, the chance to travel as young women far from their homes and study with some of the best actors and dancers in America was a remarkable chance to launch careers from challenging family backgrounds.
Henderson was introduced to the hula and Japanese folk dance in her native Hilo, Hawaii, but her family circumstances changed drastically after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Ultimately, her father was a loyal Japanese American, but he was arrested and detained because of his ethnic heritage.
“I remember as a little girl that every Sunday we went down to the police station where we got in a car and were taken to see my father,” Henderson recalls.
Her father refused to be overtaken by bitterness and his daughter credits her father’s grace for propelling her to pursue her dreams. From learning native dances as a girl, she went on to study classical dance at the University of Hawaii and subsequently discovered modern dance at San Jose State College.
Henderson attended Perry-Mansfield as a camper in 1960, and by 1962 (continuing through 1965), she was a dance instructor at the camp.
DeLucia was originally a scholarship student at Perry-Mansfield, and her mother worked in the kitchen to defray the tuition while young Nancy (Rusty) worked at the riding arena on the campus.
She shared a telling story about Perry’s administration of tough love.
“I got very homesick and wanted to go home so badly — I missed my daddy and someone told Kingo,” she said. “She asked, ‘What is this?’ and I sobbed that I missed my daddy.
“She said, ‘You know what? We don’t have any time for this.’ We walked down to the barns, she put a bucket of whitewash and a rush in my hand and told me to get busy.”
Not long after, Perry invited DeLucia to take part in an advanced acting class that included future television start Joan Van Ark, and the younger student realized she could fit in.
Ultimately, Perry recruited DeLucia to teach over the summer at Perry-Mansfield while she was studying theater at Hunter College, leading to a professional relationship that lasted many years.
Henderson recalled the night that an old cabin called “The Clan,” which was used as a green room for actors, caught fire. All of the campers in nearby cabins were awakened from their beds, not to flee to safety, but to form a bucket brigade.
If Perry’s role was to dish out tough love, Mansfield’s was to maintain decorum at the camp.
“We weren’t allowed to enter the dining room in our leotards,” Henderson said. “We had to put on a skirt and a top during meals. Each cabin chose a server and a busser at each table. It was all done very, very properly. Portia was very, very intelligent, very flighty and always singing, whatever she did.”
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