Okay, full disclosure. Besides being an accomplished bestselling author, producer, film editor, operating room nurse, etc., etc., Marsha Roberts is also my wife. Together we raised two sons, ran a fairly successful business for a lot of years, and shared many adventures all over the globe. So to keep this from bogging down into sentimentality and sycophancy I’m going to try to paint as objective a picture as I can of this woman who has captivated me (and legions of others) for more years than I’m allowed to tell you. If I get interjected into the narrative, well, you can understand why.
Marsha, I happen to know that your connection with show business goes back to your childhood. Tell us about that.
Show business is in my blood, that’s for sure! My Dad, Warren Roberts, was a local celebrity and I had the good fortune of being a girl during his heyday in the late 1950’s and 60’s.
When he retired, he’d had the longest continuously running radio show in the Southeast. For many years he also had his own TV show “Warren Roberts Presents” that ran on Sunday afternoons and he hosted what was called the “All Night Singing” at the Atlanta Civic Auditorium every Saturday night for more years than I can remember. One of my most vivid memories was being backstage, peeking through the curtains at my Dad on stage, the lights silhouetting him, the audience applauding. It was thrilling. Another highlight was when the theme song he opened up his shows with, “May the Lord Bless You Real Good,” which he had written, was used in a Dean Martin movie, Ada.
I’ll never forget sitting in the MGM screening room at about 8 years old, watching Dean Martin sing my Dad’s song. Wow. That made quite an impression!
As a child, did you see yourself pursuing a career in the entertainment business?
No, not at all! I just wanted to have an adventurous life – see the world! I used to be on my Dad’s TV show as a kid all the time, doing live commercials, singing, sitting in his lap listening to him tell a story, that sort of thing.
But by the time I got into high school, I would cringe whenever he would ask me to be on his show. What I now realize is, I was meant to be backstage, that’s where I always felt at home.
Scrapbook photos show that you were a cute little girl that eventually metamorphosed into a drop dead gorgeous young woman, but there was a period of several years between those two phases that you were, well, an ugly duckling. Tell us about that period and how it affected the way you felt about yourself and what you thought your future might be?
Now Rector, you know how I’m going to respond to the drop dead gorgeous comment! You’re a little prejudice and I never saw myself in those terms. However, I do look back at my young-stuff photos and wonder how I didn’t know how pretty I was, but I didn’t.
And I think the reason is because of all those years when I was a fat little girl with glasses who wasn’t anybody’s idea of a cute kid. My awkward years lasted longer than most, I’d say from 8 through about 14. Six long years of being ugly! My Mom used to say, “I can’t believe I have such a fat, ugly girl. But, it doesn’t matter, Marsha, you’re the smartest girl I’ve ever known and you can do anything.” So I grew up thinking I was ugly, but smart! I relied on my smarts and that was a really good thing. When I eventually grew out of my ugly phase (thankfully!), I was a young woman who didn’t depend on her good looks, I relied on my brains. Still do.
What made you decide to become a nurse and how did that come about?
I started out in college as an Art Major. Not that I was an artist, I just knew I wanted to do something creative. At the end of the first semester my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. This was 1970 and basically a death sentence. Dad had changed jobs and her treatment wouldn’t be covered by insurance for two years, so he didn’t have the money to keep me in school. I had to come home and get a job. What’s a quick job to come by for a young woman? (no wise cracks here…) A waitress, of course! After several months of that, I observed that most of the other gals didn’t like waiting on people, they found it demeaning. I didn’t. I liked serving people’s needs and making them smile. It occurred to me that being a nurse was sort of like a well educated waitress and I knew I could always get a job with a nursing degree. It was a very logical choice and one of the smartest things I did as a young person.
What was your most memorable experience in the operating room?
Early in 1975 I was in my scrubs one morning checking the first patients into the OR. When my patient was rolled in, I looked at her chart and her name was Susan Chalkley. Her head was bandanged and she looked ravaged by illness, her face lined with pain. She was an older woman, but when I looked at her birth date I thought she looked older than her years. In spite of that, there was something so very familiar about her and I said so to my supervisor. She whispered, “No one is suppose to know, but that’s Susan Hayward.” Then I could see it, underneath the suffering, the great beauty was still there. We couldn’t do much for her, basically relieving the pressure from the fluid around her brain. It was quite poignant for me, this beautiful actress who had starred with Dean Martin in the movie my Dad’s song had been in. I had watched her on the screen when I was 8 years old, she had been “Ada.” Now, only 14 years later, she was my patient and so very sick. What a life lesson about how fast it goes by and how fragile it all is.
I guess you should tell how we met and how that ultimately affected your career choices. Don’t get sloppy.
This is an easy one. You were directing a feature film, “Don’t Change My World,” and there had been a call for extras at a barn dance. The cinematographer was a good friend of mine and his mom had a bit part in the movie. She asked me to join her that night, said it would be fun. Who knew that the simple choice to go with her was going to change my life?
It was really cold that night and raining. You had been standing in the rain for several hours getting a shot of the actors arriving and the coat you had on was soaking wet.
Yeah, and as I recall, when the lead actors go in you’re standing right here at the doorway. First night we met and its captured in a theatrical movie. How many people can say that?
And we hadn’t even met yet. I stayed until the shoot was over, about 3:00 in the morning when you finally called “Wrap!” When the heat of the film lights went out, you were sitting in a chair, shivering from the cold. I walked over, sat on your lap, put my arms around your neck and said, “You look like you need someone to keep you warm.” It was the first time we had spoken all night. And, as you know, I’ve been keeping you warm every since! How’s that for keeping the sloppy out of it?
As for career choices, you introduced me to the magic of movie making. Telling stories to people in theaters. It was just the beginning…
Tell me about overcoming the stigma of being the ‘director’s girlfriend’.
First off, for those who don’t know what that means, it’s basically the ditsy gal who works on a film even though she doesn’t have any skills and everybody resents her. Now, as for me, I was immediately fascinated by the filmmaking process and was determined to be part of it. If you recall, Rector, you said “No way” because you didn’t want me to be perceived as the “director’s girlfriend.”
I waited until you were out of town and rearranged everything in your editing room, saying it needed straightening up. You couldn’t find anything without me being there. Ha! What a female thing to do! As far as being on the set was concerned, I just worked harder than anyone else and never heard a word about the “girlfriend” issue.
You’ve often been described as Sarah Lee: nobody doesn’t like you. How did that come about?
Like so many things in my life, Rector, I believe you coined that phrase! I know how you hate it when I’m humble, so I’ll try to address this phenomenon as honestly as I can. I genuinely like people and I truly believe that life is a daily miracle. I am an extremely positive person (I work on it!) and it seems to be contagious. I think people sense my love of life and my acceptance of them and are often effected by it.
Probably the understatement of the year. What was there about film editing that revved up your creative juices?
It was such a puzzle! There were all these different scenes, multiple takes, sound tracks, seemingly endless choices. The complexity of how it all magically came together in the hands of someone who knew what he was doing fascinated me. Still does.
Was film editing where you learned the fundamentals of storytelling (I know this is a leading question but I’m not withdrawing it)?
I’ll never forget the first piece of film I put together myself, after being your assistant for a couple of years or so. We were making a documentary about black bears and there was all this incredibly cute footage of the little bears playing, rolling and tumbling all over the place. The footage had been shot over a period of days and there was no clear storyline to it. That’s often the editors job in a documentary. Well, I worked and worked on it, finally bringing you in to take a look. I started to explain what was happening on the screen and you told me to be quiet, that if I had to explain, it wasn’t on the screen. When you finished watching it, you turned to me and said, “Start over. It wasn’t on the screen.”
That’s it in a nutshell. When you’re telling a story, whether on film or in a book, you won’t be there to explain how interesting it is to your audience. It either works or it doesn’t. Film editing taught me how to bring little bits and pieces of ideas together into a cohesive whole. Yes, film editing did teach me the fundamentals of storytelling. Film editing is the hardest job I ever had to learn.
How and why did you make the leap from film editor to producer?
This was the time during the late 1980’s when commercial filmmaking as we knew it was coming to an end. 16mm film production was quickly being replaced with video tape and it changed our business dramatically. You had clients for years that had routinely recommended your services as a cameraman, director and editor to others, so you never really had to go out and sell jobs. It would have taken us hundreds of thousands of dollars to get into the video business and we weren’t interested in it anyway. Regardless, the phone wasn’t ringing as much because of this and we knew we had to do something. One of us was going to have to get out and sell jobs. I knew absolutely nothing about selling, but we both knew I had the type of personality that could make it work, so I jumped in to figure it out. Reluctantly and scared to death, I might add!
We started working with a company out of Atlanta called Score Productions. They primarily did audio programs to use as premiums, like an exercise tape that came with a pack of vitamins, that sort of thing. Occasionally they needed a film and I became sort of an apprentice to a great salesman there. One day I was out pitching a film job to one of their clients and the head of that company told me he really liked our work, but they didn’t need a film right now. He said, “Do you know anyone who does Corporate Theatre.” Before I even thought about it, I blurted out, “I can do that!” although I had no idea what corporate theatre was. Well, I got the job and we figured it out. The show was a great success (thanks to you writing an extremely funny skit!) and I became a producer practically overnight, forming a company called Produced By Marsha Roberts.
I remember it well. I still had a few clients who refused to abandon film and had just returned from shooting a wildlife documentary in Alaska when you hit me with the corporate theatre thing. It didn’t interest me but your enthusiasm, as always, was contagious and I soon found myself writing corporate theater scripts. For the sake of those reading this, describe what corporate theater is and the kind of shows you produced.
Corporate theatre is live productions that are developed to sell a product at a trade show or other venues or to assist the corporation in teaching their employees something new. If it’s done right, corporate theatre can be a great way to entertain the audience while conveying the message you want them to hear. It’s called ‘infotainment’. I loved producing corporate theater; it was a blast! The shows we did were incredibly zany (thanks to your wacky scripts), rather like Saturday Night Live, and people got such a kick out of them. They ranged in length from short, sketch-type comedy to full theatrical productions. The most extensive we did was a 65 minute, 3-act play that had three stages and about a dozen performers. It was grand!
Who were some of your major clients for both film and corporate theater?
Revlon, IBM, Coca-Cola, Dominoes Pizza, Georgia Pacific, and a bunch of software companies who have been bought out so many times that people wouldn’t recognize their names now, but they were big players back in the late 1980’s. I was also personally chosen by Mary Kaye to direct her new inspirational audiobook. What a powerhouse she was and what a blast it was working with her.
What was your most memorable experience with corporate theater?
Going to Rapallo, Italy on the Italian Riviera and performing for only 18 people: the major European distributors for that company. It took us several days to set up, a day to put on the show, a night to party and then we took off for two weeks to explore northern Italy and up into Switzerland, with a stop off in Venice. We had the time of our lives!
Yeah, I’ve still got a hangover from that one. We literally closed down the bar at the hotel, then went into town and closed another bar or two. Okay, enough of that. Now we come to the big one: Letters From the Front. What is it and how did it come about?
For anyone not familiar with Letters From The Front, this may seem like a tall tale. It’s not. It happened just like this.
Corporate theatre came to a quick end with the recession that began in 1990. Jobs we had been contracted for were cancelled and I went into a complete “blue funk” as the saying goes. At the same time, America was deploying troops to Iraq. We watched the news every night and prayed for their safety. It occurred to me that the scenes of soldiers waiting for letters from home had been repeated throughout history. I didn’t know these were seeds being planted for what was to come.
After months of no work I found myself in a deep depression. I dropped down on my knees and prayed that God would give me something to help me believe in dreams again. Not long after that I was awakened in the middle of the night. I saw the words “Letters From The Front” hanging in the air like a neon sign. At the same time the idea of a play based on letters from all the American wars was placed on my heart. It was an assignment from God, plain and simple.
I woke you up and told you what I had seen. We had been together for a long time by then and I had never woken you up with a vision. You believed me absolutely and we began the long process of bringing Letters From The Front to life. You wrote it and directed it, I produced it.
What is it? It is a Broadway-style theatrical production that blessed hundreds of thousands of members of our military, their families and veterans, touring military bases worldwide. We were awarded so many commendations that it came to be known as The World’s Most Decorated Play.
We toured Letters From the Front to hundreds of military installations around the world for 15 years and had many grand adventures in the process. Tell us about your favorite or most memorable.
Oh Bob, you know that’s impossible! Too many experiences to pick just one. We had incredibly grand escapades touring “Letters,” but what stays with you for a lifetime is the people. Mainly it was the experiences after the show with our military audience, pouring their hearts out to us as if we were family, telling how their own stories related to the play… thousands of people who were so touched by our work. I don’t believe there was ever a theatrical producer who was more appreciated for what she did than I was. Those are precious memories.
Many of your answers so far can be found within the context of the stories in your book, Confessions of an Instinctively Mutinous Baby Boomer, etc. etc. What prompted you to write it and what made you think you could?
For the first time in my adult life, I was in a quiet place with time to do as I pleased. I found a true short story I had written a few years earlier on a legal pad called “The Parable of the Tomato Plant.” I knew in my heart I had something other people could relate to, other parables about overcoming obstacles in our lives. The rest just started pouring out of me. What made me know that I could? That’s the mutinous in me – I always thought I could do whatever I put my mind to!
How long did it take you to write your book – and where did you write most of it?
It took me four months to write the first draft. It took me seven months to write the second draft and another three or so months to polish it. I started submitting it at that point, but still needed another rewrite, which I did about a year later, which took two months. Where did I write most of it? On a mountain top in Tennessee!
This being your first written work, what did you find most difficult about becoming a wordsmith?
The discipline of finding the right words to express the exact emotion, the exact thought I wanted to convey.
Everybody asks this question so I guess I’ll conform and ask it too: do you listen to music when you work? What is your workplace like? Elaborate as much as you feel necessary.
I’m a real rocker and love to have my music on when I’m driving, doing house work, gardening, but not writing. Writing is a quiet thing for me. I wrote a great deal of my book outdoors, either under a large tree in our yard, where I had placed a chair with a little table beside it, or on the top of a mountain. On this mountain there is this fantastic park that hardly anyone knows about, so I often had the place to myself, especially in bad weather. There’s a covered picnic table that overlooks the river valley and the mountains beyond. I would go there, stare off into the clouds, my pen and legal pad in hand, and the words would just start coming. When I finished for the day, I’d come home and type what I wrote into the computer at my desk, revising as I went along.
If money was no object, what would it be?
Green, yummy stuff that I could roll around naked in – because there’s so much of it!
That’s an image I will always treasure.
Back to your book. Although it hits on themes that most people can identify with, it is also very personal, sometimes painfully so (well, to me anyway, being among the primary cast of characters). What made you decide to be so . . . honest and open about OUR lives?
That’s a really tough question, Rector. It’s kind of like “Letters From The Front.” It’s what I felt I was supposed to do. We had been through so many trials, things that mirrored in many ways what people were going through across the country. Tough times. But, perhaps because of the business that we’re in, the experience we had in bouncing back, reinventing ourselves, we had the emotional and spiritual muscles to deal with it. Not everybody did. I just felt that it was something I was obligated to share. If how we found the strength to deal with these difficulties could help someone else, then I thought I should do it. I felt compelled to, as you know. Thank you for understanding and allowing me to be as honest as I felt I had to be about what we went through. We came out OK, though, Rector. We are survivors!
Yeah, that’s one thing we’re pretty good at. Your book has been called inspiring and uplifting, but also hair-raising. Why hair-raising?
I think people find the chances that I took (that you and I took together, Rector!) a bit unnerving. Most people don’t risk it all for what they want to do. We did. In the process we got our noses blooded several times, but we sure learned a lot and had extraordinary adventures in the process! Heck, it was hair-raising for us at times!
I know for a fact that you feel God’s presence in your life every second of every day. Tell us about that.
I believe that every molecule we breath is God. I believe that the protons and neutrons in every cell in our bodies is God. That’s what connects us. We are all made from God-stuff. Of course I feel God’s presence in my life every second – God IS life. For the rest of it, read my book!
What made you decide to self publish?
A very kind agent that took the time to tell me the truth. I had submitted my query and/or proposal and/or manuscript to about 100 agents. Several had responded enthusiastically, but nobody signed me. Finally an agent took the time to write me a very detailed email. She explained how the publishing industry had changed and that although she would love to represent me, she didn’t think she could sell my book to a publisher because I didn’t have a large enough “platform.” She said that a publisher expects an author to be able to sell at least 20,000 copies of their book right off the bat because of a pre-existing audience.
At the same time, a friend had sent me an article from The Wall Street Journal about how self publishing was becoming easier and mainstream. I thought, well heck, if I have to sell 20,000 copies on my own anyway, what do I need an agent or a publisher for? I decided to do it myself and have never looked back.
Tell me your observations about the world of indie publishing, where it stands now, and where you see it going? Twenty-five words or less.
Changing constantly. Problems with the fact that so many unprofessional writers are in the mix and readers have a hard time discerning the quality ones. Grand possibilities, but you have to hang tough and realize it’s not going to happen overnight. I think I ran over 25 words…
What projects are you currently working on?
Just released my Mutinous Boomer book as an audiobook and I feel like a proud mom! The actress who toured with us for so many years with Letters From The Front, Della Cole, is the narrator and she does a wonderful job. She was there for many of the stories I share and puts such heart into it and humor! I love hearing her read my book!
Besides that, I’m focused on getting Letters From The Front back touring military bases, where it belongs. There are huge numbers of troops who are returning from Afghanistan at the end of this year and “Letters” needs to be there for them. I intend to see that happen (with your kind help, Mr. Rector..).
What else have you got to say for yourself?
It’s been an unusual situation to be interviewed by you, Bob. You’ve been there through all of it, supported me unquestionably through everything I’ve ever wanted to do. Not to get “sloppy,” but not very many women can say that. Thank you for that and for going on this grand adventure of life with me. I can’t imagine a more fascinating companion than you.
So, after all of this, what is my book about? Is it a memoir? Yes, in a way. Is it spiritual? Certainly, in that everything is. Do I reveal my deepest, darkest secrets? A few of them. Why should someone want to read it? I’ll quote one of my reader’s reviews, “If you believe in miracles, or if you don’t and you would like to, read this book.”
And that’s all I have to say about that!
And finally, what’s for supper tonight?
Fish. I know you’re a meat-and-potatoes guy, but I’m determined to keep you on this planet as long as possible, so tonight, it’s fish!