Friends and theater artists remember Manatee Players’‘Mama Jo’ Snyder

Josephine “Mama Jo” Snyder died Monday at the age of 85.
Josephine “Mama Jo” Snyder died Monday at the age of 85.

They all called her “Mama Jo.”

At the old Riverfront Theatre, Josephine Snyder set the tone for Manatee Players musicals. She took the stage every once in a while, but her best-known role was as the company’s music director. For virtually every musical the company staged during the course of three decades, “Mama Jo” was playing the piano in the orchestra pit.

Local actors and other theater artists give her a lot of credit for encouraging their early efforts and helping to guiding them to success.

“She encouraged actors from the straight plays to audition for musicals, and singers and dancers to audition for straight plays,” said James Thaggard, a former Manatee Players performer who’s now best known as a director. “Even if you weren’t musically gifted, she would let you know that there wasn’t any reason that you couldn’t perform the hell out of a song.”

Kristin Ribble is now the production manager for Manatee Players, and she has memories of Snyder that go back to summer camps when Ribble was little more than a toddler.

“I guess she was kind of intimidating when you were 4 years old, because she always wanted you do things right,” Ribble said. “But you always knew that she really cared about you. That’s why she was Mama Jo.”

Snyder died Monday at age 85. She had been dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and it was complication from Parkinson’s that took her life.

She came from a Pennsylvania town called Sellersville and performed from an early age. She was on the radio often and she performed at the local Moose Lodge.

When she was 6 years old, she was offered a contract to join the cast of the Our Gang comedies, which later generations knew as the Little Rascals comedies. The movie studio demanded a three-year contract. Her parents said that because of her age they’d agree to a one-year deal but nothing more. The film company wouldn’t agree to that, so her film career never got going.

“It’s a good thing it didn’t,” Jerry Snyder said. “I never would have met her. She would have been a movie star.”

Jerry and Jo met when she was 17. He was 5 years older. They married a year later, right after she graduated from high school, and spent 67 years as man and wife.

She had always wanted to get involved in community theater, but Sellersville didn’t have one. When the Snyder family moved to Bradenton, she immediately auditioned for a Manatee Players show and was a constant presence at the theater from then on. Before long her husband and their daughters, Christina, Valerie and Monica, were all involved with Manatee Players as well.

Early in her Manatee Players career, she was playing piano in the pit orchestra for a production of “The King and I,” and she got into an argument with the musical director over how to play one particular passage. The musical director fired Snyder, who sat in the lobby crying. The director of the show saw her and asked what was wrong, and she told him she had been fired. The director went into the theater, ordered the musical director to get out and never come back, and appointed Snyder to be the new musical director.

For much of her time with Manatee Players, Snyder worked with artistic director John Duval. He remembered her as a profoundly talented musician who had the connections and the knowledge to get just the right musicians to perform with her. The orchestras were small, but Snyder knew how to make a few pieces sound full and rich.

The cast members had different backgrounds and had different levels of talent, Duval said, but “Mama Jo” was always willing to stay after the appointed rehearsal time and go over scenes or songs again and again to make sure everyone got it right, and felt good about their performances.

She wasn’t just involved with the musical elements of the shows, though. She’d help build sets or do whatever else needed to be done.

“She was very generous with her time,” Duval said. “Many a cast party was held at her house.”

Ribble recalls a production of “Will Rogers Follies” that she performed in when she was a young girl. Ribble had to have her hair in braids for her role, and before each show she would sit on the piano bench while “Mama Jo” braided her hair. It was only minutes before Snyder had to perform and lead an orchestra herself, but she took the time to braid a little girl’s hair.

Backstage, just before every performance, Mama Jo would address the cast. They knew what she was going to say. It was her mantra and they all looked forward to hearing the words.

“Have fun,” she would. “Sing front. Be brilliant.”

The cast would say those last words along with her and then let out a cheer for themselves and for Mama Jo.

Marty Clear: 941-708-7919, @martinclear