Suzanne La Croix in 1970, and in January 2018
The school recently received the news that Suzanne La Croix, a former music and drama teacher at Roeper, passed away on April 16, 2018, in New York City at the age of 78 after a battle with multiple myeloma.
It wouldn’t overstate her impact to say that Suzanne, who taught here from 1968-1973, created the modern drama department at Roeper. She set standards of excellence and ambition that put the school on a trajectory that has shaped the program ever since. Given her impact on the school’s institutional history, we thought we’d share her story.
Janice Haines, the Roeper alumni teacher who has researched the history of the school’s fine and performing arts, noted that Suzanne came to Roeper at a fortuitous time. In 1968, the school was all on one campus, and the emerging high school was about to graduate its first senior class in June 1969. Suzanne was hired as a part-time vocal music teacher for the younger students’ Glee Club, but responded to working with gifted students the way many talented Roeper teachers have done over the years — going beyond her portfolio to expand the offerings to Roeper students.
Suzanne happened to hear Upper School students casually singing in the Hill House Lobby and recruited them to form a madrigal group. Together with the younger students, they performed a dramatic production of selections from Carl Orff’s demanding “Carmina Burana,” with costumes, instrumental music, additional madrigals, and dancing by students Christopher Pilafian ‘71*, who went on to a professional dance career, and Katja Biesanz ‘71, who has had a career in movement and therapy. After the highly successful evening, a parent offered to contribute money so the school could bring Suzanne up to full-time and she added Drama to her portfolio.
Christopher Pilafian ‘71* and Katja Biesanz ’71, 1969
With older students now at the school, Suzanne was able to add deep material that inspired students and set a standard of theatre that challenged the actors and the audiences. The following school year she directed “Point Blank: An Evening of Contemporary One-Act Plays About: Violence, Sex, Children, Death, War Relevance, Communications, Parents, Futility, Love, Etc”. in the brand-new Domes. Other productions included Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera,” Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood,” and Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders,” as well as more evenings of one-acts that allowed students to explore personal projects. In the music department, she directed a full production of Vivaldi’s “Gloria.” She also lobbied to make two courses in the fine arts a graduation requirement, and had the maintenance staff build a four-part platform to create a stage for the newly opened Big Dome.
Rehearsal for “The Threepenny Opera” with Suzanne and students, 1971. Photo by Benson Shulman ’72.
An artist herself, Suzanne took the 1971-72 year off to go to New York City to attempt her own career. She came back to the school for the 1972-73 school year, and then moved back to New York City for good in 1973, where she was a soprano in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus for a number of seasons. According to her long-time friend Edye Cushing, Susanne performed in a number of plays and found a niche as a character actress. She studied acting with Frank Corsaro, in classes with David Caruso, Harvey Keitel, Lorraine Bracco and Al Pacino.
Suzanne performed with many different orchestras and chorale societies over the years, and was a voice coach for up-and-coming singers in her Greenwich Village apartment. She was passionate about Off-Off-Broadway theatre and about food, taking friends to offbeat restaurants all over city and giving dinner parties for 15-20 people in her little one-bedroom apartment. When some of her former Roeper students moved to New York, including Michael Dinwiddie ’73 and Nancy Michelson Larbi ‘72, Suzanne introduced them to the city.
Suzanne supported her artistic pursuits by working as a legal secretary at Sullivan and Cromwell. In the 1980s, she went back to school at Columbia Presbyterian and became a Registered Nurse, specializing in hospice care.
Roeper students from her time have profound memories of her impact. A fierce and demanding teacher (“force of nature” was a frequent descriptor), Suzanne had high expectations but gave all the support needed for students to go farther than they thought they could. Many students developed a lifelong love for the music they sang with Suzanne. “She taught me not only to sing, but to believe I could sing, which has been one of the great blessings of my life,” said Rod Johnson ‘73*.
US Madrigal Group singing in “Carmina Burana,” 1969
“How many of us still remember ‘Carmina Burana’?” wondered Anita Zaleski Weinraub ’69. “We were so proud of that powerful music. I loved madrigals as well, with their beautiful harmonies. When my daughter joined a madrigals group in college, I dug out my Roeper copies of ‘The Silver Swan’ and ‘O La Biche’ from 1968-69 and her group performed them, bringing back so many memories.”
Tim Teasley ’72, a star on the basketball team, ventured into theatre. “Only Suzanne could have convinced me to take part in multiple theatre productions,” Tim observed. “She was charming, witty, persuasive and detail-oriented, and she loved her profession and her students.”
Tim Teasley ’72 and Patricia Simmons-Bouey ‘75
“Suzanne had the gift of making us ‘our better, stronger selves’,” said Amelia Currier ‘71. “From our drama exercises I learned how important observation is in navigating relationships, a lesson I still carry with me. A force of nature like none other!”
Suzanne was the classic example of a Roeper teacher who was here only a few years but had an outsize impact not only on the students she taught but on the course of the school’s development.
Marcia Ruff, School Historian