Cathy Rigby Still Soaring at Almost 60 in Peter Pan: Clap Your Hands If You Believe It

She was the pert and perky gymnastics Olympian who went on to redefine a character identified in the public mind with Mary Martin. And now Cathy Rigby is back, taking the lead role in the national tour of Peter Pan presented by Theatre Under the Stars and coming to Houston in December complete with new and improved flying and sword fights.

Tony Award nominee Rigby had retired as Peter Pan. It was all supposed to be over. How long, after all, could anyone play the boy who wouldn't grow up. But she continued doing some regional theater in shows in California to support a charity she founded called Discovery Arts. She had never made a habit of going out into the lobby after a show, but she started doing it then. And re-found her Peter Pan fan base.

"I had such a great feeling with the people who were coming. It was this generation of people who had seen the show prior and they had a history with the show," she told Art Attack in a phone interview. "I just fell in love with the reaction so many people had seen so many versions of the show."

So she decided it was time for one more time after all.

"If I can do it better and if I can do it fresh and I can do the flying more spectacular than ever, then maybe one more time," she said she told herself. And she hasn't regretted the decision. "I've had the best time. There's a comfort with the show. There's a sense of much more relaxed, spontaneous allowing for the moments to happen; it's so much more childlike. I'm really allowing that child to come forth."

"We've added more flying and the sword fighting is a little more dangerous." Asked how that is achieved, Rigby gets technical.

"Before I would have a single harness. On the one I'm wearing now, I have three points where I can hook up and fly. At the center of your back is a single wire which allows you to do a pendulum sort of swing on a track.

"But what we've added with the double harness; it allows you with two wires connected to your hips to really flip and do more horizontal flying and flipping and spinning that you can't do with a single wire. It's especially kind of complicated and wonderful in the fight scene in Marooners' Rock. Peter lands on pirates in a way that looks a little more real."

Unlike many traveling shows, the flying on this version of Peter Pan is not automated, Rigby says, adding that she feels more secure this way.

"The great thing about working with people, you have a partner who you trust. You breathe together, you move together. With an automated system that doesn't work, well...I was in Kansas City. It was a great effect; we flew out over this 12,000-seat outdoor theater. Something happened with the computer and I just couldn't do it."

Two men run her wires during the show, she says, including Paul Rubin, a.k.a. "The Fly Guy," an acclaimed master at designing aerial flights onstage. "We've been together almost 18 years. You don't see them (during the show). It's too bad you can't go backstage. In the nursery scene, one is pulling me up and down, the other side to side. One is jerking you forward and the other is landing you on a dime. During the aerial ballet, as the sets break away, the kids are also flying. While he's flying me he's also giving instructions to the three flyers who are flying the kids. It's a great show backstage."

The diminutive Rigby - she says she's 5'and a quarter; her producer husband bills her as 4'11" - says she gets kids coming up to her all the time surprised by the difference between her stage persona and herself. "I have little kids who'll go, 'You're not a boy.' 'Wait a minute, you're older in person than you are onstage.' 'Wait a minute, you're really young onstage.' I'm kind of grateful that I have the ability to play the role and it keeps me young and it forces me to work out."

Of course, also keeping her young is that she spends a lot of time around kids doing the show. "The older kids obviously are a little more mature. The most remarkable are the kids who are six or seven and do eight shows a week. I can't imagine having that kind of focus at six or seven years old. These kids have to be incredibly focused all the time.

"The only thing, the funny scene that has happened in the past, in the nursery scene it's a fairly long scene between the time the kids fall asleep and Peter does his whole scene and starts flying. We've had the kids fall asleep, actually. And when Wendy calls to them to wake up and come flying with Peter, she really means wake up!"

Rigby does say, however, that this tour is the absolutely last last time. "We go till April. This time I know this is the last time I'm going to do it."

Cathy Rigby appears in her last time performance of Peter Pan as well as the Lost Boys, Captain Hook and Tinker Belle, December 11-23 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For tickets, go to the theater's website or call 713-558-8887.

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