The brutally cold December air kept most of the revelers off the large front porch, but inside the funky, two-story house in Southside, Rebecca Jennings’ annual solstice party was going strong.
Music was playing. Dozens of people, many of them artists, actors, and other creative types, were laughing and swapping stories. The dining room and kitchen tables were covered with the usual generous selection of food and beverages, both alcoholic and otherwise.
The only thing missing was Jennings herself. For the first time in the history of the solstice parties, which have been held at this house for over 40 years, the grand dame of Birmingham theatre was not there to hold court.
On Thanksgiving night, 85-year-old Jennings died peacefully at home, leaving behind hundreds of friends, collaborators and former students to mourn her passing. Many of these people were at the party, which was held as planned despite her death.
The gathering was far from gloomy, however, especially since Jennings’ presence was still palpable. “It is really hard to be in this house and not feel her,” said actor Jack Heidt. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Becky popped up someplace.”
“The interesting thing about the party and Becky not being here is that for most of the night it really felt as though she was here,” said Judy Jones, Jennings’s long-time friend, housemate and traveling companion, in a telephone interview a few days later. “The biggest surprise was that it never became in any way morose or sad. It’s impossible to have a gathering here, particularly in celebration of Becky, and not have it be a happy thing.”
Indeed, there was much to celebrate in the life and influence of a woman who was a major force in Birmingham’s creative community for decades.
Born in Birmingham in 1923, Rebecca Alice Jennings earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of Montevallo and a master’s degree from the University of Denver.
After spending two years working in theatre in New York in the mid-1940s, Jennings returned to her hometown, where she worked on hundreds of shows in a career that lasted 60 years. In 2003, she celebrated her 80th birthday by directing her final show, a production of Tom Jones (based on the Henry Fielding novel) at Birmingham Festival Theatre.
Jennings was an actor, director and producer. She built sets. She was, according to her collaborators, a master of dramatically effective lighting.
Jennings was a founding member of the Town and Gown Theatre, a founding board member of both the Birmingham Civic Opera and Birmingham Civic Ballet, and had a long career teaching drama in local schools, including 20 years at Banks High School.
For this lifetime of work, Jennings received a Standing Ovation Award from the Birmingham Area Theatre Alliance in 2008.
Julian Brook, a friend and collaborator, delivered the eulogy at the Dec. 4 memorial service that nearly filled the small sanctuary at Grace Episcopal Church in Woodlawn.
Later, I asked Brook in a telephone interview what made Jennings so special.
“Her approach to getting things done,” he said. “There wasn’t anything that could not be done. You just had to figure out how. And getting people involved was her talent as well.”
Jennings was a strikingly handsome woman. Before her hair turned gray, it was long, full and fiery red. She carried herself with style and grace, and was a true free spirit and free-thinker. Her Southside house — filled with books, bric-a-brac, paintings, sculptures, old props and other mementoes of a long, creative life — was a destination for generations of Birmingham writers, dancers, filmmakers and theatre people.
“Becky was one of Birmingham’s last truly great bohemians,” Jones said. “She always walked to her own drummer. She did it her way. And she had her own standards about play production and about how she moved through life.”
Jennings will also be remembered for her long creative collaboration and personal relationship with the late painter and scenic artist London Bridges. It was Bridges, the daughter of sculptor Georges Bridges and Eleanor Massey Bridges, who originally purchased the house in Southside and shared it with Jennings.
Several of Jennings’ students from Banks, some of whom still referred to her as “Miss J” or “Miss Jennings,” attended the party. Among them was Ginger Barbee, a 1966 graduate of Banks who took speech from Jennings and acted in plays that Jennings directed, including The Music Man. According to Barbee, Jennings inspired her to study speech and drama at the University of Alabama and to become a teacher herself. “Becky was the kind of teacher who made everybody feel comfortable, made everybody equal,” Barbee said. “She could find the good in everybody and pull that out and work with it.”
Capers Doss is a 1974 Banks graduate who did about 10 shows with Jennings while in high school. He chose not to attend the solstice party, though he did attend the memorial service and a wake that was held at the house a couple of days after Jennings’s death. “I didn’t go because I knew that it just wouldn’t be the same,” Doss told me in a telephone interview. He credits Jennings with nurturing his talent and getting him started in theatre, which he has continued to pursue. “I was totally a wild child,” he recalled. “I had no direction. She saw something in me that I didn’t know I had. I said to myself, ‘I can do this.’”
Doss remembers a time when Jennings showed him some tough love. “We were doing The Mouse That Roared. It was my first lead. And I was just a sophomore. That didn’t happen much. I was backstage hopping up and down and hugging my girlfriends. Miss Jennings came barreling back there. ‘Get your skinny ass out there,’ she told me. ‘You’ve already missed your first cue.’”
Artist Marie Palmer, who knew Jennings for nearly 50 years, since the days when Palmer was an apprentice to Georges Bridges, nearly allowed her grief over Jennings’s death to keep her away from the party. “I just never knew anybody in my life that I had a connection with like Rebecca,” she said. “It just hurt me so much when she died.” However, she decided that she had to come. “I came to the party to make sure I made a connection with a lot of people I had met throughout the years that I knew that if I didn’t go to the party I might not ever see again, because there’s no guarantee that this is going to continue,” Palmer told me.
Over the last decade, Jennings began to suffer more frequent and more debilitating ailments, including hip problems, osteoporosis, heart and kidney disease, even cancer. However, she refused to allow her increasing frailty to stop her from enjoying her friends or going on vacations with Jones. “She aged in years but she never became old,” Jones said. “Up until the day she died she engaged anybody who came in this house.”
Jennings also never lost her sense of adventure. “I don’t know of many things that she wouldn’t try or do, whether it was places to go, things to eat, books to read,” Jones said.
Jennings was, like any character in a good play, complex, and part of that complexity related to her spiritual life. “Becky was really a good Episcopalian,” Jones said. “Up until a couple of years ago, Becky tithed 10 percent of everything that came into this house. She would write a check and she would get into her car and she would take it to the church. That’s a side of her that I think might surprise people.”
As her own mortality loomed, Jennings also made clear to Jones that she wanted a traditional funeral, except for the fact that she wished to be cremated. “At some point in the last couple of years, I asked her, ‘Do you want a nice, interesting theatre memorial someplace, or do you want a church service?’” Jones said. “She said, ‘I want a church service.’”
“Rebecca enjoyed going to church,” according to Palmer. “She enjoyed the connection. Just the act of being in the church and feeling one with the congregation, I think that’s what it was with Rebecca. She felt like she was in a holy place. I think she was a believer.”
In addition to whatever comfort her faith may have afforded her, Jennings also took comfort in the belief that her Southside home and the creative community it nurtured would endure, according to Jones. “I think that gave Becky a lot of solace, knowing that things weren’t necessarily going to change,” she said. Jones remains in the house and vows to honor its traditions. “Of course, we will continue to have parties here,” she said. “We might even add a couple more.”