"Fun. It’s got to be fun,” has been Tom Cordingley’s motto over the years.
And it’s been that and more for an 18-year run as managing director of Grandstreet Theatre.
He officially retired July 31, but can be seen around Grandstreet through August, while he trains his successor, Kal Poole.
Cordingley is also appearing onstage in the musical “Hair Spray,” through Aug. 18, — in four different roles, and is particularly memorable as Mr. Pinky, sporting a flamboyant fuchsia outfit.
For many, Cordingley’s major role over the years has been as a super-hero.
“I truly don’t believe Grandstreet would be there today, if it weren’t for Tom,” said board vice-chairwoman Mignon Waterman. “He’s been a solid rock. He’s supported children’s theater and built community support.”
She was present at the 1975 “birthing” of Grandstreet Theatre, when it opened in the Placer Hotel.
“I was one of the people who said it couldn’t happen,” she admitted. She didn’t think the community would pour in the thousands of volunteer hours needed to make a year-round theater flourish. “They made a liar out of me. I think it’s here to stay.”
Over the years, Cordingley has appeared in many roles — on stage and off.
Frequently, he’s seen in the guise of repairman — fixing the theater roof, mowing the lawn, repairing the boiler and, last week, helping install a urinal.
He’s also a Pied Piper of sorts, admired for his love for children.
A highlight of his retirement party earlier this month, an event attended by more than 200 people, was a video showing him leading a song-and-dance number, “God Bless Tom Cordingley,” with a group of 50 kids — a scene reminiscent of a Woody Allen or Steve Martin routine.
Cordingley penned the ditty years ago as a joke, but it’s become a classic at the Grandstreet Theatre School. “Thousands of kids know my song,” he said with a smile. “They sang it to me at the end of the summer program.”
And a number of theater-school alumni traveled home from far-flung places, for Cordingley’s final bow as director Sunday.
Grandstreet has always been more than just a job. The theater has been Cordingley’s community and extended family, a statement echoed by many Sunday night.
When he and his family moved from Great Falls to Helena, as an owner and advertising manager for Montana Magazine, “the first few years were rough getting into the Helena scene,” he said.
But once Cordingley appeared in “Mindbender” with Grandstreet education director Marianne Adams, that all changed.
“It’s what got us into the community,” he said. “Finally we found people to connect with.”
He wound up serving on the theater’s board for seven years and was drafted as managing director when his predecessor departed unexpectedly.
“I didn’t really want to do it,” he admitted. And then 18 years flashed by.
“I love the place so much, I didn’t want to see it hurt,” he said, of his decision earlier this year to resign. “I’ve given it everything I’ve got. It’s time for a new person.”
Grandstreet needs fresh energy and fresh ideas, he said.
And, what could be more fitting than to have the next generation of Grandstreeters take over.
He’s delighted to pass the torch to theater alumnus Poole, who brings with him a wealth of theater training, skills and experience.
“He has a vested interest in the school,” added Cordingley. “He has two little kids.”
“It is just such a safe and secure place to feel accepted,” said board chairwoman Beth Yeakel, who watched her daughter Sarah flourish at Grandstreet.
Kids and adults, alike, know “there’s a place for you,” said Yeakel. “Tom — with the staff — created that.”
“It was always fun, number one,” said longtime coworker Adams. “He has a great sense of humor.”
Since the staff all share the same office, that’s critical.
“He was always so supportive of the staff,” she added. “We felt safe.” He always looked out for the staff’s interests.
And he’s a fixer. No matter what he was in the middle of, he took time to deal with the crisis of the moment — whether it was fixing a broken copier or finding a Band-Aid for a crying child.
“He was there for us,” Adams said, “and consequently, we were there for him.”
He’s been the well-loved face of Grandstreet, advocating on its behalf in the community, whether at Hometown Helena or before the city commission.
Cordingley admits his retirement plan isn’t fully scripted. He’s improvising. But that’s nothing new for him.
Expect the unexpected — particularly if you’re sharing the stage with him.
Infamous for forgetting or ad-libbing his lines, Cordingley would draw looks of astonishment and wonder from some of the young actors as he winged his way through a performance.
“You’re always on your toes,” laughed Adams.
Grandstreet staff and board hope he’ll make many an encore performance on Grandstreet’s stage for years to come.
Through good times and lean years, he’s kept Grandstreet humming.
“There’s no doubt, he kept the doors open,” said Yeakel, “and raised the money.”