“Main Street is just unrecognizable now. It’s unbelievable!”
Columbia-born Jim Maher sits in his living room surrounded by memories in the form of literature, artwork and music. The Columbia of his youth and college years has a different kind of energy now, with a thriving and diverse arts community and three busy urban hubs for business and social needs. At times it seems like a foreign country to the 1955 Columbia High School graduate.
As Jim reflects on his journey, he considers the moment his interest in the arts was ignited. It was 1949, and Columbians were bustling around downtown. At the age of 11, Jim visited the Township Theater with his mother to see the Foster Follies, put on by a local dance school. When the show began, so did an interest in dance that became a focal point of his life.
In those days following World War II, people experienced the city differently than now. Customers clamored for vegetable soup and corn sticks at The Fountain Room at Tapp’s or, for more upscale fare, crowded into Maxim’s at the posh Wade Hampton Hotel. The Foster School of Dance was located on Greene Street near Gibbes Court, and that was where Jim’s mother took him to study tap and acrobatics. As he witnessed some company dancers rehearsing a ballet, he thought, “I can do that.” Once he started ballet, he quickly became a part of the junior company and within a year was a part of the senior corps.
For the rest of Jim’s educational career, his life consisted of school studies and dancing at the studio.
“I don’t remember exactly what I was studying when I went to USC,” Jim says. “After three years I finally said, ‘What am I doing here?’ I was influenced by the great musicals like Brigadoon, and I just had to go to Broadway.”
Columbia had given him the tools he needed to be an entertainer, so when one of the accompanists from Foster’s decided to head to New York, Jim thought he would join her. They embarked from the train station that is now The Blue Marlin. “I had borrowed $100, which was a lot of money then,” Jim chuckles. “Out of that came my train fare, and then I got up there and … well, I had to call home every now and then to borrow another $10.” And so began a glamorous, multi-faceted career that would last until Jim returned to Columbia in 1991.
Soon after arriving in the Big Apple, Jim landed a small role on Broadway in Oh, Captain, starring Tony Randall. After that, he was constantly working, appearing in such productions as Oklahoma, Damn Yankees and Gypsy. Along the way Jim met everyone who was anyone on Broadway. It seemed every day carried an air of glamour and mischief. From working with the original cast of Hello, Dolly! to looking out of his apartment window for excitement at the back door of the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, he never knew what adventure to expect. “I would look out at the ice sculptures in the driveway and see Mike Todd dragging Elizabeth Taylor over his shoulder. And she would be kicking and screaming at him. It was quite a sight!”
After Broadway plays he would go to the eating establishments and look up to find that he was rubbing elbows with famous headliners. “There were watering holes where I remember seeing Jason Robards as he’d come strolling in. I’d be sitting at the bar having a drink, look up, and Lauren Bacall would be sitting next to me. Things were great like that.”
As Jim worked, he became an early version of Columbia’s legacy of nationally acclaimed dancers. He used his choreography skills in many of the productions he took part in, and these skills eventually took him to the great houses of ballet. In 1961 he danced at the “old” Metropolitan Opera Ballet with the Bolshoi in Spartacus. After performing as a soloist at the “new” Met at Lincoln Center, a friend asked him to join a project in Washington, D.C. From 1967 until 1968, Jim danced as a soloist with the National Ballet Company of Washington D.C. In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the country panicked and race riots erupted in the nation’s capital.
The air was thick with anger and oppression, so Jim returned to New York to perform with Robert Shaw on The Ed Sullivan Show before settling into the next phase of his creative career. J.P. Stephens & Co., an interior and fabric firm that is famous for its licensing deals with companies such as Polo Ralph Lauren, hired him to design showrooms. During this time Jim also worked as an assistant display designer for Ohrbach’s, a famous and now defunct department store based in New York City and Queens. As he worked his 9-to-5 jobs, Jim kept in close touch with the theater and dance communities where he had become a popular fixture. But after retiring from Brooks Brothers, where he designed displays for stores around the United States, Jim decided that it was time to reestablish his connections to Columbia.
By 1991 Jim’s mother and father had passed away, and his brother had moved to the other side of the country. Nevertheless, Jim decided Columbia was the place to go to relax and pursue his personal projects. He purchased a house near Forest Acres and began to build it into a shrine to his love of the arts.
Throughout Jim’s home are memories of his colorful career.
The house is just big enough for his needs. It contains a deck, spacious kitchen, breakfast nook, living area, bedroom and an office for business. The first things that a visitor notices upon entry to the home are the pigs. They are everywhere … listening to miniature gramophones, perched on tabletops, peeking out from under tables. Some are porcelain. Some are charcoal-drawn. Some are converted from old advertisements or propaganda. Then there’s the memorabilia. Beside his cozy armchair is a photo of Meredith Vieira and one of Jim’s J. P. Stevens co-workers. A poster features what was then the “new” Metropolitan Opera House. Everywhere memories are interspersed with his own collections and artwork. There are self-portraits from different decades showing a thoughtful and bespectacled man who had his hands in many of America’s great artistic endeavors.
Part of Jim’s plan upon returning to South Carolina was to share his talent and experience with the city that had given him the tools for his success. Unfortunately, not long after being treated for a detached retina, he was diagnosed with macular degeneration. With his vision compromised, Jim reached out to his new Columbia friends, who jumped in to help him with everyday tasks. Now, he can navigate through his home with such ease that one doesn’t even notice that his vision is impaired. He knows where to find every dish, every file, every photograph of every show of which he has ever been a part. His resilience is a part of the spirit for which Columbians are known.
Though he was unable teach his skills to Columbia’s talented up-and-comers, instead he teaches through the amazing stories he tells of the life he achieved by simply deciding to take the chance and jump. It is a lesson worth hearing from time to time.