This is part of an Observer series about people who have had significant and sustained influence on Charlotte’s arts world.
A special parking space sits at Fifth and College streets, in the shadow of the statue of Queen Charlotte walking her dogs. This is the tale about it:
A few years ago, arts organizations realized a beloved patron – a woman who supports more of them than even she can count – often struggled to walk from her car to theaters inside Founders Hall. So they lobbied the city quietly to reclassify the parking space closest to the building as a handicapped spot.
Anyone with an appropriate sticker may use it. But on performance nights, you’re likely to see a gold Buick in need of a wash pulling up and Marie Mitchell climbing out.
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Mitchell is unique among Charlotte culturegoers. At 87, she attends well over a hundred productions a year, from French operas to touring Broadway musicals. She’ll risk a night out, knowing only the performer’s name. She’ll go alone, if she can’t talk a friend into joining her.
Meanwhile, she gives. The Charlotte Symphony lists Mitchell in the $25,000 to $49,999 range in its programs. Doug Singleton, executive director of Charlotte Ballet, says she has commissioned 15 ballets by eight choreographers over the past dozen seasons. Opera Carolina, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Theatre Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre and others know her not only as a fan but a benefactor.
And none of this might have happened if she hadn’t become an usher 25 years ago, as soon as Belk Theater and Booth Playhouse opened their doors.
Until then, she’d been known mostly as a mainstay at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church. She still runs its cramped but homey gift shop, next to the Perpetual Adoration Chapel she endowed. She joined the church 44 years ago, after moving to the nearby Woodbridge neighborhood, and its people became a second family.
But in the 1990s, the arts enveloped her.
“The ballet was probably the first group I got involved with,” she says. “I guess I felt I needed to do something, because I saw all this wonderful entertainment. I thought, ‘I can afford it, and I ought to donate to groups I see.’ ”
She peppers her speech with “probably” and “about.” Her father came from Lebanon about the time of World War I, working in the shipyards of Camden, N.J. He moved to Charlotte to live near cousins; Marie’s mother came over sometime in the 1920s, and older brother Michel got a baby sister in 1931. The family lived at Five Points, where Statesville Avenue, Graham Street and Liddell Street meet; they ran a café and store near their home, until Michel went off to World War II.
Her dad, who died in 1944, never saw Marie graduate from old Harding High School in 1948 and the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore in 1952. She majored in French, picking up a smattering of Italian and Spanish to go with her parents’ native Arabic.
“I thought about becoming an interpreter,” she recalls. “But for some reason, when I saw an ad for a job as secretary and office manager for an electrical manufacturer’s agent, I took it. On Saturdays, I worked at Maison Michel, my brother’s gift shop.
“That shop started out on South Boulevard and moved downtown at some point, first to North Tryon and then to East Trade, where (the restaurant) Aria is now. Michel died in 1980, a year after my mother. I retired from my office job in 1981 and kept Maison Michel open until 1989, when somebody bought up that whole block (for Bank of America).”
Mitchell has stayed in Charlotte all her life, except for college. She has lived in only three houses, belonged to only two churches – she was baptized at St. Peter’s – and owned only four cars. She doesn’t drive far: In 18 years, she has put less than 100,000 miles on the Buick. “Father Frank (O’Rourke) keeps saying I should get a new car,” she says. “I don’t want a new car. I don’t want to learn all the newfangled things on it.”
‘She’s an example’
Yet at 61, her well-regulated existence changed in 1992. The woman who’d “always been too busy to go to things” found her social life enriched by usher friends at the Blumenthal and her psychological life enriched by music, theater and dance.
Singleton met her first as an usher, a job she held for 22 years, then as a patron. When she learned an acquaintance had paid to create a ballet, she asked what a commission involved. Singleton told her over lunch at Eddie’s Place: love of the art form, trust in a choreographer and $10,000 to $25,000, depending on the size and length of the piece.
She started with a pas de deux, “You/Me/We,” in 2006, and most recently commissioned Bryan Arias’ “When Breath Becomes Air” last season. She liked former resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden and paid for his 45-minute “Othello,” a violently sexy updating set to house music.
“That one kind of threw me,” she admits. “I took three priests. We were sitting down front, right by the dancers, and I thought, ‘Oh, my Lord!’ Not that I didn’t like it, but….”
Says Singleton, “She has such respect for the dancers. When they are happy and fulfilled onstage, she’s fulfilled. It’s about knowing them as individuals, having a long-term relationship that gets amplified when she meets them at rehearsals or social events.
“We have major anonymous donors, but we ask her to let us use her name, because we want others to be inspired by her. She’s an example of what people can do when they care so much.”
You may wonder 1) where the money comes from and 2) whether Mitchell’s an artist herself.
She has invested wisely for decades in stocks and properties. Having neither spouse and children nor pets, she supports things she loves: the arts, St. Gabriel’s, family in Lebanon and nonprofits such as Holy Angels in Belmont, Catholic Relief Services and the public library, whose computers she uses when she’s not at the church. (She doesn’t keep one at home.)
She took piano lessons as a child, gleefully explored all aspects of ballroom dancing as a young woman and sings alto in St. Gabriel’s choir. But she doesn’t perform, unless you count Stations of the Cross pageants at Easter. “I am the devil,” she says proudly. “People come up to me afterward and say, ‘Oh my God, Marie, you make such a good devil.’ ”
Beyond money, her main commitment to the arts is omnipresent advocacy.
Theatre Charlotte gave her a lifetime membership years ago. “Though she often says how tired she is, she seems tireless in her support, both financially and as a volunteer,” says executive director Ron Law. “Not only does she see almost every production from her seat in the front row, she attends our Broadway Ball – where she has often been spotted dancing.”
Chase Law, Blumenthal’s vice president of development, also appreciates Mitchell’s energy: “If she likes something, she’ll tell people about it. If she doesn’t like something, she’ll tell you that, too. In her church community, she beats the drum for organizations she supports. When she comes to shows, she tells people about shows coming up, to encourage them to go.
“She’s so self-reliant. We have a concierge service for people who give $1,000 or above, where we help them find tickets and waive ticket fees. But she won’t call me: She likes to find seats herself. All she asks of us is a thank you and quality work.”
In many ways, Mitchell’s an ideal patron: She doesn’t want artistic control when she donates, she can’t recall a single commission she didn’t enjoy, and a bad night out – say, the recent “A Christmas Story,” which “I just did not like at all” – never turns her off. Two days later, she was tapping her feet to Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
She even gives financial advice with donations, which she makes mostly in stock. Says Singleton, “She’ll tell me, ‘Wait a couple of weeks before selling this.’ She’s sharp.”
At home, Mitchell’s a creature of routine. Mornings start with “Perry Mason” at 9, “Mannix” at 10, coffee and breakfast, the news and soap operas. At 2, “my day really begins.” On nights she stays home, she enjoys “Dancing with the Stars,” “The Voice” and other TV competitions. She eats dinner at 10, whether she’s been to a show or not: “I never cook, so I live on takeout and leftovers.”
“She’ll tell me she’s tired,” says Law. “But that’s because she goes out so many nights.
“I know she’s been through a lot, health-wise. So every time I see her, I’ll ask if she needs help getting to her car. And she’ll say, ‘Oh, no, I’m parked in my normal space. It’s right out back.’ ”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.