Recipient of Michigan State University Distinguished Alumni Award
The distinguished alumni award is given annually to alumni who have distinguished themselves by obtaining the highest level of professional accomplishments and who possess the highest standards of integrity and character to positively reflect and enhance the prestige of MSU. Congratulations Theda!
After choosing an education over a job offer from Hollywood as an assistant choreographer, Theda Assiff-MacGriff graduated from Michigan State College in 1949. Since graduating, Assiff-MacGriff has lived her life working tirelessly to share her special talents and love for art.
At a time when women rarely owned businesses, Assiff-MacGriff founded the Assiff Studio of Dance in 1950. She successfully taught all forms of dance for 55 years and has trained thousands of young people to appreciate and love the arts. Her former students have landed on Broadway and at national and international dance companies, and some have decided to carry on her tradition as a teacher by starting their own studios. Throughout her professional career, she has donated her time as a choreographer to many theaters and schools. She assisted with two musicals per year for nearly 30 years as a volunteer, and still teaches ballet at The Studio Performing Arts Center.
Assiff-MacGriff has held memberships in many professional organizations including a life membership at the American Society of Teachers of Dancing, the oldest organization of dance teachers in the United States, and once served on its Board of Directors. She has received many awards for lifetime achievement, including the East Lansing Crystal Award for service to the city and the Michigan State University College of Communication Arts and Sciences Crystal Apple Award for accomplishment in her career. Modeling the Spartan values of hard work, dedication and altruism, her warmth, humor and love of her students make her a popular and productive pillar of the community.
MFMC MEMBER HIGHLIGHT BETTY BAXTER LANSING MATINEE MUSICALE MEMBER
Betty Baxter was born singing—early on as a sing-along gig in front of the radio, and, then at the movies, choosing Shirley Temple as her role model, which led to tap dance lessons (where she caught on so quickly she left her teacher in the dust). Her very first theatre audition was for the role of Adelaide in Guys and Dolls (Circle at the Rowe, Grand Rapids, 1957). The audition was “stage-fright city,” but Betty won the role. The critic said, “Biggest first night audience in history . . . Betty Baxter, who brings to the part of Miss Adelaide, the nightclub singer and fiancée of 14 years standing, an east side New York accent, brash voice, and naiveté that are perfect for the part.”
Betty didn’t waste any time—first aspiring to the Shirley Temple model, then taking on Adelaide, the role that Vivian Blaine made famous on Broadway (1950) and in film (1955).
In the 1960s Betty moved to the Delaware Valley where she worked as an accountant and Office Manager for Docktor Pet Centers in Philadelphia and later became an internal auditor for Rentex Corporation. She moonlighted in a couple of shows—she was a member of the chorus in Flower Drum Song, but her big role was Penelope Vanderhof Sycamore (aka Penny), the madcap matriarch of the Sycamore family in Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You. Then Rentex sent her to California as manager of their Los Angeles branch. In Los Angeles, her stage work was limited, but she did have a brush with fame, doing a gig with Pat Boone. Even met and impressed Leroy Vinnegar, the great jazz bassist, who liked her singing and gave her some of his original songs to consider recording.
In 1977, Betty moved to Lansing to work in the Michigan Senate, first as a journal clerk, then as the Accounting Department Supervisor. Her singing career resumed when she met Sandy Izenson, a talented local pianist: “He could play any tune I called, in any key I wanted—without charts.” Soon Betty and Sandy were playing weekly at Aux Delices, as well as at country clubs and local lounges. She then partnered with Dr. Fred Mitchell, Jr., a talented pianist and bassist, and began her career in smooth jazz. In 1988, she adopted the name “Satin Sounds,” and became a much-sought-after vocalist in mid-Michigan. Her just-released CD, Love Remembers, features a quartet of mid-Michigan all stars - Jeff Kressler, piano; Ed Fedewa, bass; Jeff Hall, reeds; Fred Knapp, drums.
From the Grand Rapids Press:“Baxter has a club singer’s voice—sensuous and intimate. The softer she sings, the more you pay attention.”
Betty is well known in central Michigan having performed at the Lansing Old Town Jazz Festival, the Michigan Festival, Lansing Riverfest, MSU ‘Jazz at the Museum’, and their annual Chocolate Party, the Lansing Downtown Arts Festival, the YWCA Diana Awards Banquet. She has also performed at BoarsHead Theater, the RE Olds Museum, the Michigan Theater, the Southview Concert Series, the Michigan Historical Museum, and the Lansing Art Gallery.
In 1987, Betty sang at the Sesquicentennial Ball at the Michigan State Capitol, for which she undertook extensive research into popular songs written by Michigan composers. This research turned into six different programs which she has performed extensively around the state. Since 1995, she had been active in Lansing Matinee Musicale, presenting jazz programs, as well as study clubs about Michigan composers of popular songs and jazz, featuring among others the work of Isham Jones (born in Ohio, grew up in Saginaw). In 2008, during the presidential campaign, she dipped once again into American popular music history and presented a program of political satire in song for Lansing Matinee Musicale.
Betty is a self-taught pianist and a life-long music student—studying at Jamey Aebersold’s Summer Jazz Camp and at Lansing Community College in a New and Experimental Music course.
Betty Baxter’s life is music—or, her music is her life. As a performer she is engaging; her personal style is infectious; and her musicianship is impeccable. Betty and Margaret Whiting would have gotten along famously; Betty and Jo Stafford could have sung silky smooth duets; and Bobby Short would have loved her. (bio by Prof. Jerry Mattson)