In the fall of 1994, Linda Kiger Smith and her husband, Don Jay Smith, had fellow Morristown residents Alexander Slobodyanik, a well known classical pianist, and his wife, Laryssa Krupa, over to their house. Slobodyanik and Krupa had taken over control of Morristown’s Community Theatre, which had just reopened after being closed for almost a decade. With the help of the Smiths and others, Slobodyanik and Krupa had gotten the venue into good enough shape to host a concert by Slobodyanik and the Kirov Orchestra in September 1994.
“After the concert Linda said to me, we have to find a way to keep this going,” said Don Jay Smith. “But by Thanksgiving, (Slobodyanik and Krupa) had lost a considerable amount of money and the theater was doomed to close again. Linda piped up around our dining room table and said, ‘If you turn it over to me, I will make your money back for you and make this a viable operation.’ And everybody says, ‘Yeah, it’s yours. You can do it.’
“When everybody left, I looked at her and said, ‘What were you thinking? How are you going to do this?’ She looked at me and said, ‘Rock concerts. Everybody loves rock concerts, and they’re profitable.’ And so, two weeks later, she booked From Good Homes and they sold out, and it was a very profitable concert.”
Linda Smith, who continued presenting shows at the Community Theatre (originally built in 1937, and now known as the Mayo Performing Arts Center) for the next decade and also was one of the driving forces behind the annual Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival, died at her Tewksbury home on June 11 at 72, after a long battle with metastatic breast cancer. She is survived by Don Jay Smith as well as three children.
“We were together 41 years,” said Don Jay Smith. “And we did everything together. We worked together. We had similar hobbies. We cooked together, we hiked together.”
Born in Ohio and raised in Michigan and Connecticut, Smith moved to New York in the late ’60s. She worked in marketing and the record industry, and designed album covers for John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Melanie. Later, she served as a performing arts consultant for clients such as the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, New Jersey City University, Seton Hall University’s Executive Suite Program, and Stockton University’s Annual Gala. She also was a violinist, performing with the Abbey Orchestra of the Delbarton School in Morristown.
Her most striking accomplishment, though, was turning around the Community Theatre. Now, of course, the Mayo Performing Arts Center plays such a large part in the local arts scene that one can take it for granted. But 25 years ago, there was no guarantee that the attempt to revive it would work.
Don Jay Smith remembers that, back at that 1995 From Good Homes concert, “I looked at Linda the night of the concert … we were both so excited about having a full house, and I turned to her and said, ‘We thought of just about everything except security.’ We had no security. But it turned out, this was the right concert to have no security. They were such a well-behaved crowd.
“So that’s how it started. She got Maynard Ferguson to play for strictly a percentage of the house, which was not how he worked. She just had a way. She wanted the musicians to feel that she was on their side. And she was. She just wanted people to feel good about coming to the theater, and she wanted the artists to feel good about coming to the theater, and that’s how she was able to get so many great people in the early days when we didn’t have any money. They knew she was on their side and they knew she was doing something special.”
Smith said he recently found a photo of her with Tito Puente at the Community Theatre. “It reminded me that was that first night we sold liquor,” he said. “And the people were so lubricated that they didn’t even pay attention to the fact that he was an hour late for the show. They were just having a good time.
“You know, she somehow always managed to make it a party. Every show was a party with her.”
Yet she had no desire to receive any kind of public acknowledgement for her work, Don Jay Smith said. “She never liked the spotlight. You know how many times I tried to get her up onstage at the Community Theatre or at the festival, to come up and take a bow for all the work she’s done? And she would look at me from the sidelines and be signaling, ‘No, no, stop it!’ She didn’t like any of that.”
Smith has huge medical bills resulting from his wife’s illness, but is being helped by a GoFundMe campaign organized by musician Jerry Vezza. The GoFundMe campaign has raised close to $57,000 so far from 181 donors — a good indication of how many lives Linda Smith touched.
When Vezza had his own bout with cancer, more than a decade ago, the Smiths organized a fundraising concert for him.
“When he approached us last fall he said, ‘You guys really saved my house and saved my family when I was very sick,’ ” Don Jay Smith said. “He said, ‘I’ve always wondered how I could ever return that favor’ — which he never had to. We just wanted to do it for him. And he said, ‘I want to set up a GoFundMe.’ ”
The Smiths said no at first, but Vezza insisted, and they agreed. “He said, ‘You’re going to be glad that I did.’ And it turns out, we are glad he did. Because it’s helped us with all the expenses that we’ve had. One of her drugs was $13,500 a month.”
A celebration of Linda Kiger Smith’s life will be held in September, at a location to be announced. And Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty has said that at every future Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival (this year’s is scheduled for Sept. 18), “we will honor and pay tribute to Linda and her dedication.”
In addition to donating to the GoFundMe campaign, people can honor Linda Kiger Smith by making donations in her name to the Tewksbury Rescue Squad, the Whitehouse Rescue Squad, or Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.
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