When Florida Studio Theatre’s Artistic Director Richard Hopkins hired Phyllis Silverman in 1994, the Pennsylvania native had no previous theatrical experience, except for a love of tap dancing.
It didn’t matter.
Silverman had something better: a warm personality and outstanding customer-service skills, traits carried over from her previous job as the owner of a Hallmark card store in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“I told (Hopkins) during the interview that when I ran my store, my goal was to make every customer smile before they left,” Silverman says. “Anyone can ring up a card, right? To have good conversation and make someone feel good, it sets you apart from the rest. I think that’s what got me the job.”
And it’s likely that’s what’s kept her on the theater’s payroll for 18 years.
When Silverman, 71, came on board, the FST campus and its staff was half the size it is now. There was no Goldstein Cabaret or Gompertz Theatre. Everyone worked out of the Bea Friedman Room.
“We were on top of each other,” Silverman recalls. “It made for wonderful cooperation.”
It’s hard to tell if she’s being sarcastic. For a woman who claims to have no acting chops, she’s quite the entertainer.
A North Sarasota resident, she spent her first five years tending to box office and bookkeeping duties, until Rebecca Hopkins (she and Richard Hopkins got married last year) was promoted in 1998 to managing director and Silverman was promoted to her assistant.
The two women are close, even if Hopkins is always juggling 100 things at once.
“We go out to lunch a lot,” Silverman says. “It seems like the only time I can get her undivided attention.”
Hopkins oversees FST’s administrative, business, marketing and development departments, in addition to aserving as a liaison to other arts organizations. A co-creator on many of the company’s cabaret revues, she also works as a head writer for FST’s “Laughing Matters” series.
As a result, her job is demanding, so Silverman, like any personal assistant, is tasked with everything from feeding her boss’ cats to picking up new scripts.
Last year, when Hopkins was planning her wedding, it was Silverman who helped get the invitations in the mail on time. As the mother of three grown sons she never had the opportunity to participate in the frou-frou side of wedding planning.
“I think of her as my second mother — my Jewish mother,” Hopkins says. “She kind of watches out for me here. When I’m sick, she brings me soup. She thinks part of her job is telling me I work too hard.”
An expert multitasker, Silverman is constantly helping out other departments when they’re short-staffed, which means it’s not uncommon to find her manning her old post in the box office or hand-sewing fringe on clothing in the costume shop.
“I always fill in the cracks if any department is in crisis,” Silverman says. “There are certain skills that come after 18 years. I might not always be able to solve the problem, but I’ll know who to ask.”
She’s become FST’s resident den mother.
When the company’s 83-year-old bookkeeper retired recently after 25 years of service, Silverman, who has 10 grandchildren, became the oldest full-time employee.
At 4-foot-8, she’s diminutive, but that doesn’t stop her from treating the theater’s red staircases like her personal treadmill now that she’s had a knee replacement.
“I’m afraid to retire,” she says. “I don’t play bridge or golf well enough to retire.”
In 13 years, she says she and Hopkins have only butted heads once: When Hopkins insisted Silverman participate in her senior improv program.
Despite her inherent sense of humor, Silverman balked for days leading up to the first class. Although she participated begrudgingly and eventually grew to enjoy the experience, she failed to overcome her stage fright and to this day refuses to perform on stage in front of a crowd.
“It was one of those things where she griped and complained the whole time,” Hopkins says. “But I know she had a blast.”
The popular rock-and-roll musical revue, “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” has been extended another two weeks. Now playing through March 25 in the Goldstein Cabaret, the show will run March 27 through April 7 in the Gompertz Theatre. For tickets, call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.
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