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Carma Lou Beck remembered for wit, wisdom, 'incredible talent'

Brian Glick, co-founder of Revival Theatre Company in Cedar Rapids, speaks with board member Carma Lou Beck at a fundrai
Brian Glick, co-founder of Revival Theatre Company in Cedar Rapids, speaks with board member Carma Lou Beck at a fundraiser for the 2016 production of “Evita.” Beck, who died on Monday, played an important role in his life. He said that as a young artist, he enjoyed hearing her talk about the city's arts history, as well as how she built up her business at a time when few women were doing that. “I soaked it up like a sponge,” he said, and advises other young artists to listen to what the older generations have to say, and learn from their experiences. (Greg Billman)

“One of a kind.” “A classic.” “Icon.” “A truly remarkable woman.” “A woman ahead of her time.” “What a loss to the arts community in Cedar Rapids.” “A legend for sure.”

Those sentiments and many more have been shared on social media since Tuesday, as word spread of Carma Lou Beck’s death Monday afternoon.

Beck, 82, of Cedar Rapids, had been battling myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow disorder, as well as a recent bout of pneumonia.

She was a force of nature, known for her television ads and business acumen as the longtime owner of Carma Lou’s House of Music, as well as for her role in producing The Follies for nearly two decades. After the 1997 Follies, she stepped down as co-executive producer for the variety show that began in 1980 as a Symphony Guild fundraiser for the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra.

However, her arts advocacy continued.

“She supported all the groups,” said Damon Cole of Cedar Rapids, who knew Beck for more than 35 years, through their church music appointments and The Follies, where he served as the accompanist, then music director, and eventually, artistic director. “She would go to this concert and that concert, this show and that show. She seemed to be in attendance at all of those things.”

He enjoyed collaborating with her on productions, as well as socializing with her, where her sense of humor would come to the fore.

Famed Party Trick

One of his favorite memories — also mentioned several times on Facebook and shared by Beck’s daughter, Christie Hurd of Lee’s Summit, Mo. — involved her party trick of singing a song in one key, while playing it in a different key with her right hand and yet another key with her left hand.

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“Anyone that didn’t know music thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, Carma Lou can’t sing,’” Hurd said. “But she was on pitch with all three (keys). It sounded horrible. ... It sounded so bad that there were people — celebrities in the community — who were almost aghast.”

But those who knew music, like Beck’s fellow Symphony Guild members and Follies friends, “were just cracking up in hysterics,” Hurd added.

“She was my favorite person for a long time, to laugh with,” Cole said, noting that he especially enjoyed hearing her sneak snippets of popular songs into the music she played before and after church services years ago, at Mount Vernon’s First Presbyterian Church.

Her ability to weave fun into business not only earned her praise from her peers, but translated to her audiences.

“I really think she did know a lot about people and how to connect people with the show,” Cole said, making her a fan favorite with Follies tour bus audiences.

“After the show, she would go out and hit the buses, and people would applaud,” he said. “She was a real drawing card for The Follies. She had those TV ads running, so people saw her a lot on TV and put her in the celebrity category.”

‘Incredibly Talented’

Steve West of Iowa City, chairman of West Music Co., welcomed Beck aboard his staff after she closed her music store in 1996.

“She was an incredibly talented individual, not only in music,” West said. “She was a very quick learner, (with) energy and drive. She was a very good competitor for a number of years. It was great to able to work together.”

She spent the next decade with West Music, specializing in church organs.

“That was an area she knew a lot about,” West said.

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“There’s nobody that knew the organs better than Carma Lou,” said Cameron Sullenberger of Cedar Rapids, who served with her in the music ministry at Noelridge Christian Church in Cedar Rapids. “She knew every installation in the state. You name a city and a church, and she could tell you when it was installed, who was the person she worked with, what kind of organ it was, when it had last been serviced. I’ve never met anybody like that.”

‘End Of An Era’

She played the organ at Noelridge Christian Church for 23 years, ending in December 2019, when her health was failing.

“She was a really strong influence on the congregation,” said the Rev. Stew Royce. “She recognized the importance of worship and always made it fun, without going beyond the boundaries.”

She also took Sullenberger under her wing when he arrived there 11 years ago. She became his family in his new city, even calling herself his grandma.

“She was the wisest woman I’ve probably ever met,” Sullenberger said. “She was my mentor, she was an advocate, she was a friend. ... We spent so much time together, and her imprint on my life I’ll never forget. Never.”

He brought her to the board of the Revival Theatre Company he was starting with Brian Glick in 2014, and she soon offered her services and contacts for the new company’s advertising needs.

“The hardest thing in being a new group is building trust and a network,” Glick said. “So if you have someone like Carma Lou and she says, ‘Here, support this,’ or ‘Do this trade with us,’ they’re going to listen.”

He also appreciated her no-nonsense approach.

“If you ever were nervous to walk into a room and do a deal with someone, you would want to bring her along,” he said.

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“When we would need a piano for a show, she would take care of that for us. She would say, ‘Let me make a phone call. What kind of piano do you want?’ And so, of course, on top of that, she would cut a deal with it. That’s hard to find. It takes years to develop that kind of name and trust, and having that association with Revival was a big deal. ...

“It sounds cheesy to say it’s the end of an era, but it kind of is.”

‘One Of a Kind’

“I think everyone has a Carma Lou story, whether from her years as Follies’ co-producer, her stores, her commercials, or all the ways she was involved in the community,” said Steinway artist and touring concert pianist Jim McDonough of Cedar Rapids. “She’s one of the few that didn’t need a last name to be identifiable.

“I bought a Steinway grand from her when I was in ninth grade. From that point on, she was a great advocate for me and my career, including serving as my advertising director for 10 years. She became a valuable sounding board and friend of 30-plus years,” he said.

“She was truly one of a kind, and what a life she had.”

A celebration of life will be held in the late spring or early summer. For more information, see her obituary at thegazette.com

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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