She was co-Artistic Director of Miners Alley Playhouse, President of Denver Actors Fund and a longtime contributor to non-profit community
Brenda Billings had her future husband at “I did.”
It was 1977, and Jim Billings was directing a musical revue for his University of Kansas fraternity. The theme: “Broadway Bound,” naturally. He walked into the Pi Phi sorority, where a stranger named Brenda Worley was assigned to be his Musical Director. “Here is this beautiful brunette playing at the piano,” Billings said, “and I said to her, ‘Wow. I have never heard that song. Who wrote it?”
“I did,” she said.
Jim was a goner.
Later that same day, Brenda and her friends were laughing as Brenda passed Jim an old photo showing a boy of about 4 years old standing in front of a house. Jim’s first reaction? “That looks just like the house where I grew up in Colorado.” And then it hit him: “That IS me!” he said. “How did you get that picture of me?”
Brenda got that picture from her mother, Ruthie Barker. Turns out the mothers of these destined lovers had been sorority sisters at that same Pi Phi house in Kansas decades before. “Ruthie had given Brenda that picture and told her, ‘If you ever meet a guy named Jim Billings at college, you can show him this picture.’ ”
Jim and Brenda Billings would soon start not only one of Denver’s most accomplished and beloved theatre families. Together, they have built an extended family that has come to include hundreds of honorary Billings.
“Our home came to be known as ‘The Gathering Place,’ ” Jim Billings said. “Our children’s friends always knew they were welcome at our house, and they always knew they were safe. They knew they could spend the night. And they knew they could talk to us about anything.”
His mother, Brady Billings said, “was a warrior of acceptance.”
Brenda Billings died tonight of complications from a sudden and catastrophic brain hemorrhage that triggered while she was doing what she loves most – conducting auditions for Miners Alley Playhouse’s upcoming production of Little Shop of Horrors. She was 57.
“From stage management and directing to acting, dancing and singing – I am most at home in the theatre,” Billings said last July, when she accepted the presidency of the Denver Actors Fund.
And so, in a very real way, Billings died at home.
Brenda and Jim Billings have four grown children: Jessica, Jacquie Jo, Jamie and Brady. Jacquie Jo won a 2014 True West Award for her performance in The Fantasticks, directed by her mother. Jamie Billings performed in the national touring production of Spring Awakening and went on to study direction in London – at her mother’s suggestion. Jessica is a registered nurse, and Brady recently graduated from Marymount Manhattan College. Billings’ brother, Tag, remains a highly sought drummer in the local theatre community. He is married to choreographer Alann Worley. Jim and Brenda Billings have one grandchild, Liam, to daughter Jessica and Will Barnette. The 2-year-old called his grandmother “Baba,” but he wasn’t the only one with an endearing nickname for Brenda.
Longtime director Paul Dwyer considered Brenda a sister he took to calling “Brenda Sue Joe Bob” – purely out of love and affection, he said.
“All she cared about was her family,” Dwyer said. “And she loved the fact that her family loved the theatre, too. Nothing made her happier than seeing her family doing shows.”
Shows like Miners Alley Playhouse’s currently running classic comedy You Can’t Take it With You, which will continue through May 1 with daughter Jacquie Jo and her fiancé, Cody Schulyer, among the cast. It even has Jim playing a J-Man at select performances. The production was directed by Jamie Billings, who has returned from London, where she was assisting on a touring production of Hamlet, Who’s There? She has decided to stay home and honor her mother by directing the upcoming Little Shop of Horrors in her place.
“I think that’s the right thing for me to do,” Jamie said. And a gesture that completes a poignant family circle. It was Brenda who stepped up to direct Hair for the Evergreen Players when her father, the legendary PK Worley, passed away in 2011.
Tony Award-winner Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots) grew up in and around the Billings family. Like hundreds of others, she was still reeling from the suddenness of the loss.
Billings lost consciousness at her theatre in Golden and was immediately transported to St. Anthony’s Hospital, where doctors determined a burst vessel had instantly cut off all blood flow to her brain. But Billings’ spirit of giving will continue far beyond her death. She was a full organ and tissue donor, and doctors estimate she will live on in as many as 50 recipients of her kidney, liver, skin, ligaments and more. Her corneas will make it possible for two separate recipients to see again.
Ashford, who appears on Showtime’s Masters of Sex and will be featured in Fox TV’s upcoming Rocky Horror Picture Show, said her mind immediately went to a verse from Proverbs that she believes describes Billings perfectly: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
“One of her greatest gifts on this Earth was watching over all of us,” Ashford said. “Only an incredible woman like Brenda could be the matriarch of such a magical group of people I consider family. Her guidance, humor, creativity and love, along with her equally incredible husband, created four beautiful humans who all give to this world more than they take. Her passion for storytelling and art is carried on through all of us who were lucky enough to call her friend. I am blessed and happy to be one of them.”
Billings was born Sept. 27, 1958, and grew up in a Kansas theatre founded by PK Worley, who came to be known in Colorado as a musician and director with the Evergreen Players. Brenda graduated with a degree in Speech and Drama from the University of Kansas and moved to Colorado in 1983 to marry Jim Billings. Her brother and father soon followed. That began a long family association between the Worleys and the Evergreen Players, Evergreen Chorale, Colorado Childrens Chorale and other local theatres. In 2013, Brenda Billings and Len Matheo became co-artistic and executive directors of Miners Alley Playhouse.
“She was as special as her father was – and that is saying something,” said actor Bruce Montgomery, Billings’ longtime friend from her days with the Evergreen Players.
Deborah Persoff, who recently starred in 4000 Miles at Miners Alley Playhouse, says she recently asked Billings’ advice about navigating the theatre’s dark entranceways. “She told me: ‘Do like PK always said: Be Brave.’ ”
Matheo considered Billings his “work wife.” “It had to be fate that I found a partner who knew about the business of theatre but also was a serious and loving artist herself,” he said. “I thought it was a match made in heaven.”
Matheo says Billings made him a kinder, gentler person – and a better director. “One of her principles was that we would always put people first, and that we would make an effort to help these people grow as artists,” Matheo said. Toward that end, Miners Alley Playhouse instituted a pay scale that guarantees all actors a minimum stipend of $800 per show, compared to similarly sized companies that often don’t pay actors much more than gas money. “And equal pay for women,” Jamie added.
“Believe me, we weren’t making money, but that was not the most important thing to Brenda,” Jim Billings said. “Our mission is for all of our actors to feel loved and accepted and valued.”
They did it, Matheo said, “because it was the right thing to do.”
Billings’ recent directing credits include Pump Boys and Dinettes, Godspell, The Fantasticks and Songs for a New World at Miners Alley Playhouse, as well as the award-winning Hairspray for the Evergreen Players.
Daughter Jacquie Jo has been there for almost all of them. She said an everlasting memory will be a poignant moment in The Fantasticks when, each night, Jacquie Jo’s character sits in a tree and kisses the ribbon that covers where El Gallo had given her a bruise.
Every night I knew exactly the spot where my mother would be standing in the darkened aisleway watching,” Jacquie Jo. “Every time I kissed that ribbon, I would look over at her, knowing that she would be there.”
Shawn Hann, Director of Theatre at Denver School of the Arts and a single mother, said Brenda stood by her as she adopted her daughter, Tihun, from Africa. She cited late-night texts, emergency babysitting and “general mother magic.”
“She shaped how I mother,” said Hann. “She changed me as a woman, as an artist, a director and a teacher. And I am just one in the bucket of thousands Brenda went the extra mile for. The hole that is left in our Denver theatre community is massive.”
Brenda and Jim Billings were steadfast supporters of the Denver Actors Fund from its inception in June 2013. The start-up non-profit provides money and neighborly services to members of the local theatre community in situational medical need. Billings not only infused the grassroots volunteers’ efforts with energy, clout and smarts, Brenda and Jim remain its largest individual donors.
In just the 10 months Billings has served as President, the Denver Actors Fund has generated more than $41,000. She was instrumental in securing the Denver Actors Fund’s eligibility to participate in Colorado Gives Day, which raised about $11,000 for the nonprofit in a single day. “This unique and vital organization is making such an important difference in the lives of the Denver theatre community,” she said when she was appointed.
Daughter Jessica said the pairing “was the most perfect thing because, of course, the Denver Actors Fund encompassed her passion for theatre – but it also encompasses her other passion of wanting to take care of people.”
Billings has served on the Board of Directors for many nonprofits in the Denver area. Her longest tenure was with the Colorado Children’s Chorale. She spearheaded their fundraising efforts for more than 10 years and was instrumental in their overall financial success. She also has been active in fundraising for the Denver School of the Arts and The Evergreen Players.
While Billings’ place in local theatre history is evident, Jacci Geiger will remember her best friend as a proudly, ferociously free spirit. The two were “a pair of perpetual 17-year-olds,” Geiger said.
When Brenda discovered that Jamie and her high-school friends had never toiled-papered a house, “she was appalled,” Jamie said. “She told us, ‘We’re going T.P.-ing right now!’ ”
One of Jamie’s friends was Jenna Moll Reyes, who recently performed in 4000 Miles at Miners Alley Playhouse. Reyes said Brenda immediately rallied the group into the nearest grocery store, where her practical side kicked in: “She told the kids: ‘Don’t get two-ply. It’s expensive,’ ” Geiger said with a laugh.
“So we bought a ton of toilet paper and we ended up T.P.-ing the houses of some of our closest friends,” Reyes said. Brenda loved that the teens got to experience that first thrill of running away as house lights turned on, and jumping into moving cars to keep from being caught.
“We were in tears from laughing so hard,” Reyes said. “Memories like that truly speak to her heart. She was playful, she was ambitious, passionate, courageous, genuine, generous beyond words, and timeless.”
Said Geiger: “I don’t know if I will have anybody else who will do these really inappropriate things with me anymore.”
Billings was clearly not a typical mother. She was a bleeding-heart liberal, son Brady says, and she was passionate about justice and fairness in the world.
She was also passionate about the Denver Broncos – and dinner time. Even if dinner came at 10 o’clock at night, Brenda insisted the family gather around the table and eat together – most often fried rice and French fries. “She would have us go around the table every night and say our highs and our lows for the day,” Jessica said.
She was open-minded and curious about all kinds of art. So much so that she regularly watched Game of Thrones with her youngest child. “My friends are like, ‘You watch Game of Thrones with your mom? The show where they have sex and decapitate people?’ ” Brady said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah. She loves it.’ ”
He remembers watching Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds with his mother. He left thinking how brutal and violent the film was. “And mom was like, ‘That was so awesome!’ ” he said with a laugh. “She loved it all.”
Billings did not ascribe to any organized religion. “Her religion was unconditional love,” Jamie said. “That was her No. 1 thing.”
She demonstrated that belief hundreds of times, but perhaps never more poignantly than when she came across a young gay actor in the production she was directing of Hair. He was from a strict Mormon family that was not supportive of his lifestyle. Brenda took him to see Geiger. “She told me, ‘Jacci, you have got to meet this kid. He is amazing and he needs love.’ So we took him to the Pride parade. Over time, I think I got him out of some dark spots. And eventually I even got his mother to a PFLAG meeting. None of that would have happened without Brenda.”
Billings was also known for unending conversations. Ashford said whenever she made plans to see Billings, “I always made sure I added an extra hour in the calendar.” Ashford will always remember their last (elongated) meeting fondly. It was in New York, where Ashford recently starred in Broadway’s Sylvia.
“We had brunch before Brenda and Jim saw a Sunday matinee of Hamilton, and they shared with me all the happenings of the Billings clan as well as the art they were creating in their beautiful theatre in Golden. We talked for so long that I had to run to my half hour just to make it in time as they hugged me and walked to their theatre.
“I shared with them a special secret of mine, and we left knowing we would see each other soon, just the way that friends that feel like family do. I believe I will still see my dear friend. She is with us and all around us sharing her beautiful light and love and continuing to give us her blessings as an artist, a wife, and most of all a momma.”
Perhaps the greatest irony of her too-short life? “She was always – always – the last to leave a party,” said Geiger. “She was known for saying goodbye at least eight times.”
And now she leaves an extended family in deep shock and grappling to understand why, of all parties, Billings had to leave this one early.
She is also survived by mother Ruthie Barker and stepfather Bob Barker of Kansas; nephews Tucker Worley of New York and Dylan Worley of Florida; and future son-in-law Cody Schuyler.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist. He is also founder and Executive Director of the Denver Actors Fund.
Brenda Billings life celebration
A celebration of Brenda Billings’ life was held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, at Denver School of the Arts.
An evening of songs honoring Brenda Billings, as performed by returning actors from musicals she directed, will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, at the downtown Hard Rock Cafe. BUY TICKETS
Miners Alley Playhouse
1224 Washington Ave.
Denver Actors Fund
4594 Osceola St.
Denver, CO 80212