John Shearer: Highly Successful Broadway Music Director Was Baylor School Graduate

Sunday, June 26, 2022 - by John Shearer

Although it apparently has received scant attention locally, perhaps the most successful Broadway music director ever to come out of Chattanooga recently died.


Donald Pippin, who graduated from Baylor in 1944 and was the music director for several popular Broadway musicals over the last six decades, died June 9 outside New York City. He was 95.


His death was announced by his former wife, Marie Santell, a Broadway performer with whom he had remained close.


He had burst onto the big stage in a big way as the music director and conductor for the Charles Dickens-inspired musical, “Oliver,” which opened on Broadway in January 1963.

Not only was it popular with 774 performances, but so was Mr. Pippin’s work, as he won the best conductor and musical director Tony Award.


Reports said he had been an assistant conductor for a 1960 show, “Irma la Douce,” produced by David Merrick, and he was able to later meet with Mr. Merrick, who was also producing “Oliver.” He boldly pushed his skills, and the producer hired him.


The work led to also being involved in some of the bigger shows in Broadway history, including “Mame,” “A Chorus Line,” and “Applause.” He was also the music director at Radio City Music Hall for several years beginning in 1979.


Besides “Mame,” he also worked on a number of other shows with composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, including “La Cage aux Folles.”


He also shared an Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in music direction for “Broadway Sings: The Music of Jule Styne,” a concert recorded in 1987 at the St. James Theatre in New York and shown on PBS television.


Known for his warm manner, he had been born in Macon, Ga., but spent most of his early years in Knoxville, according to other news obituaries. His mother, Irene, had him take piano lessons beginning at a very young age, and he quickly showed an aptitude for the instrument.


She died when he was 10 and his father, Earl Pippin, who worked in the grocery and wholesale food business, sent him to Baylor as a young seventh-grader boarding student in 1938 with his brother, Earl Cranston Pippin Jr. Not wanting to stop an apparent prodigy, his father also had his Steinway piano sent to the Baylor chapel, where he could practice.


His piano teacher in Knoxville also contacted Harold Cadek of the Cadek Conservatory about giving him lessons, and Mr. Pippin continued to hone his skills while also filling in at various churches and houses of religious worship in Chattanooga. He once told a story of working at so many different places of worship that he accidentally forgot where he was once and played “Old Rugged Cross” at a synagogue. The rabbi corrected him but was evidently not too hard on him.


He had also worked as a staff pianist at WDOD beginning at the age of 13.


During his performances, he had met an older single woman, Sarah Selman, who was known for her musical gifts. He introduced her to his father, and they were eventually married, with the elder Mr. Pippin moving to Chattanooga.


The elder Mr. Pippin had apparently also spent some time as a traveling salesman and lived out of the Read House for a period before finding a permanent residence.


Old city directories say the family had already settled in Chattanooga by at least 1940 and lived at 522 Sterling Ave. in Riverview – about halfway between the current location of Girls Preparatory School and Riverview Park. A glance at the house in recent days shows that, unlike many homes in that part of town that have been greatly remodeled, expanded or even razed for a rebuild, it looks like it probably once did when his family lived there.


The elder Mr. Pippin, who was originally from Missouri, initially worked with A&P grocery chain when he first moved here. He later became a traveling salesman before beginning to operate the now-razed Pippin’s Market at 326-28 Vine St. next to Lindsay Street before World War II ended.


He later started Concord Poultry Farm on South Concord Road before moving the business to 3816 Alton Park Blvd. By about the late 1950s, he had moved to the Tampa, Fl., area where his other son, Earl, had become a doctor.


His wife, Sarah, died in 1970 in Florida at the age of 78 and was buried at Hamilton Memorial Gardens in Hixson, while he lived until 1983 and had remarried a woman named Pauline. He was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Knoxville.


He was 84 when he died, so he must have been about eight years younger than former wife Sarah.


An old Baylor directory is not clear whether Donald Pippin attended Baylor for all six years as he transitioned from a boarding student to day student, but he graduated in 1944, two years behind his brother.


Among his Baylor classmates were future Coca-Cola bottler Jack Lupton, future diplomat and presidential Cabinet-level adviser David Abshire, Robert T. Jones Jr. (son of noted golfer Bobby Jones), Outland Trophy winner Joe Steffy, and Judge John Tyson (son-in-law of coach Bear Bryant).


In an interview with Rachel Schulson for the summer 2006 edition of the Baylor magazine for alumni and supporters, he said that while he was glad to see Baylor move on from being a military and all-boys school, which it was when he attended, he enjoyed his experience overall.


“I had a marvelous education,” he told her. “I had a lot of tutoring and coaching and have fond memories of my teachers.”


He also told Ms. Schulson that he went to the University of Alabama and then Army basic training, where his best friend was future singing superstar Tony Bennett.


After military service in the Pacific as World War II was winding down, he enrolled at the University of Chattanooga and later at the Juilliard School. After watching a performance of “Kiss Me Kate” while feeling cramped by the rigorous Juilliard curriculum, he fell in love with the world of Broadway theater.


Itching to enter the working world, he left Juilliard before graduating to write musical productions for the fledgling ABC-TV. Thinking the conductors did not do a good job with the music, he was inspired to learn conducting himself, and that led to his later career.


And as part of his rise in his field, one literal lift he regularly enjoyed was on the hydraulically operated Radio City Music Hall orchestra pit before the start of a show in front of sometimes 6,000 applauding show attendees.


He also worked with orchestras in numerous cities, and on Dec. 17-18, 2005, he conducted the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra’s “Home for the Holidays” program at the Tivoli. At the time, that was said to be only his second visit to Chattanooga in 30 years.


Recently hired UTC men’s chorus director Darrin Hassevoort said in a press story put out by the school in recent days that he had also worked with Mr. Pippin.


A check of the clipping files at the Chattanooga Public Library revealed several articles written on him over the years. A 1956 story in the Chattanooga Times – before he became well known – mentions that he was musical director of St. John Terrell’s Music Circus tent show in New Jersey.


The article by Mimi Stephens also said that he worked for ABC for three years and was also in Hollywood, where he had composed the score for the film, “Young at Heart,” starring Doris Day and Frank Sinatra.


In 1964, a year after he received a Tony, he was written up in the Times for being honored for his music work at an alumni gathering of Baylor School at the Fairyland Club on Lookout Mountain. Other distinguished alumni were also recognized.


A 1979 profile by longtime Chattanooga Times writer Carolyn Mitchell talks about him taking over as executive music director at Radio City Music Hall that May. It was the beginning of the revival of that beloved New York landmark through concerts and other special events after its popularity as predominantly a movie theater and home of the Rockettes had begun to wane.


In 1982, Mr. Pippin told Lila McLeod of the Chattanooga News-Free Press in another story that he was working with noted actress Lauren Bacall in “Woman of the Year” on Broadway and had previously worked with her on “Applause.”


He said that from his apartment, he usually scored, arranged and composed music, including that which was to be turned into stage form. He used as an example a longer musical ending he developed for “Mame” than what was originally composed, and that proved to be the show-stopping part of the musical.


He told reporter Ms. McLeod that while studying at UC after initially thinking about being a doctor, which his brother became, he worked with the Chattanooga Opera Association. He also said his main church to fill in playing the music was Centenary Methodist Church.


It was in the now-razed sanctuary across Lindsay Street from Memorial Auditorium, before the current First-Centenary United Methodist worship facility was built. His father and stepmother had been members there.


He also told Ms. McLeod more details about breaking into Broadway with “Irma la Douce” by asking the musical director if he could be his assistant, and then became the director himself when the director left for personal reasons.


That led to his work on “Oliver,” and he mentioned to Ms. McLeod that he wanted the “Oliver” position so badly that he just showed up at producer Mr. Merrick’s office and was able to get a meeting with him.


He also said in that 1982 article that he missed Chattanooga and that he had bought a country home outside New York City because it reminded him of the hills around Chattanooga. He said they also hoped to come to Tennessee for the World’s Fair and that he yearly received a letter about returning for Baylor’s fall homecoming/alumni activities.


In 1983 in an article in connection with his work with the popular new Broadway hit, “La Cage aux Folles,” he told Travis Wolfe of the Chattanooga Times that when he was growing up on Sterling Avenue in Chattanooga, he used to go to the Tivoli Theatre. While there, he dreamed of playing a big organ like the Wurlitzer there, he said.


He had that dream fulfilled in a way when he conducted the CSO there in 2005.


In 1990, Helen Exum of the Chattanooga News-Free Press went to visit and interview him in New York at Radio City Music Hall, where a rehearsal for a Rockettes’ Easter show was taking place.


She asked him whom the favorite people he had worked with were. His eyes lit up and he said, “Oh, so many – Angela Lansbury, I just love her. Lauren Bacall, Bea Arthur, Raquel Welch, Debbie Reynolds, Robert Preston, Robert Goulet. The list could go on and on. I’ve had a wonderful time working with these people.”


It was apparently a mostly wonderful life as well for this man who went from Hunter and Lupton halls at Baylor in Chattanooga to Radio City Music Hall in New York and beyond.


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