TIVERTON — When she was a young girl growing up in Fall River, Bonnie Strickman had two main ambitions in life: She wanted to be an actress, and she wanted to live on a farm. Even then, she sensed her two goals may not have been compatible.
“I remember asking my mom, ‘Do you have to live in New York to become an actress?’ I never wanted to live in a big city,” Ms. Strickman said.
As it turned out, that’s where she ended up, making a living as an actress and then a singer in the Big Apple for more than 25 years. But a few years ago she finally gave up her “little rent-stabilized apartment” in Greenwich Village and bought a home in a unique and still-growing arts and agricultural community in Tiverton known as Sandywoods Farm.
“I’ve never owned anything in my life except for my car,” said Ms. Strickman.
Although she left the big-city clubs and swanky hotels behind, she’s got a new venue in which to sing: The Sandywoods Center for the Arts is only a walk away. On Saturday night she was reunited there with two New York musicians — Hillie Dolgenas on keyboard and Scott Lee on bass — for an evening of jazz and pop standards performed in front of old friends, new neighbors and other appreciative music-lovers.
“It almost feels like a coming-out party,” said Ms. Strickman, adding that the celebration served another purpose. “Three days later is my gigunda (60th) birthday — this huge, ridiculous, horrible, how-did-this-happen-to-me birthday.”
Ms. Strickman’s interest in the stage began at a young age. Both of her parents were involved in the Little Theatre of Fall River and she also took singing lessons — although she didn’t share that with her friends. “I always kept it a secret because it wasn’t cool when you were a kid. They thought I was going to my grandmother’s house, but I didn’t have a grandmother,” she said.
With ‘Fantasticks’ director
A Wheaton College grad, her professional career began with Trinity Repertory Co., where in 1975 she appeared in a show directed by the late Word Baker, the original director of “The Fantasticks.” “He was very difficult and temperamental, but I got along with him fine,” she said.
For the bicentennial the following summer, he put together a musical — “Your Basic All-Star, Ragtime, Bebop and Blues Revue” — at the former Stone Bridge Inn, across from Grinnell’s Beach in Tiverton. The restaurant was an East Bay institution. “I remember being a kid in Fall River and we’d always go there for polished meals, baked stuffed lobster. So many people who grew up there worked there,” she said.
The revue earned so many raves that Mr. Word decided to take it — and Ms. Strickman — to New York City, where she remained for nearly three decades. Like most young actors, she took on a number of odd jobs to supplement her income — waitress, hostess, diet center counselor — as she went from audition to audition. Some friends from Trinity Rep were there with her. “We were there doing this together. It’s great when you’re in your 20s.”
She had a featured role in the off-Broadway musical hit, “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road,” which she described as a “women’s lib show” produced by the Public Theatre. She was also pursuing singing on the side. She learned much of the Great American Songbook, in fact, while acting as Mr. Word’s assistant in a big New York brownstone while he recuperated from a bad back.
“I would sit with him and he’d sing me through the fake book,” she said, referring to a collection of simplified lead sheets that allow a musician to learn a song quicker. “That’s how I learned a zillion of the old songs that I now know.”
In the late ’80s, after a friend suggested that she sing at parties, Ms. Strickman hooked up with a New Jersey orchestra and did just that. “Suddenly I was doing four gigs a weekend,” she said.
But she tired of the orchestra drowning out party-goers who were trying to talk. So in 1992 she started a new business with pianist Hillie Dolgenas called Sounds Perfect. “We became sort of an alternative (to the louder orchestra),” she said of the six- to eight-piece band. “We did a lot of swing, some classic rock.”
Their first gigs were private parties at Bouley, an upscale city restaurant run by her friend, David Bouley. “He first approached me about music for the restaurant — me with a piano and bass wafting off in a corner, which has become my specialty,” said Ms. Strickman, who also served as assistant manager for a spell. “We were doing things like for the prime minister of Greece. We lucked into a situation and it evolved from there.”
Sounds Perfect supplied music for openings at the Whitney Museum, parties for Estée Lauder, and performed at big university clubs and fancy hotels. The business was never wanting for talent. “This is New York and you have a huge pool of phenomenal musicians to utilize,” she said.
Back in Rhode Island
In 1996 Ms. Strickman and her band performed a successful dinner dance at the Stone House Club in Little Compton and she started dividing her time between New York and Rhode Island. (At one point, she made an impromptu appearance at a political fund-raiser attended by former President Bill Clinton.)
She hated New York City in the summer, so she started living in an “amazing space” at the former Carriage House Theatre in Little Compton. The theater was founded by the late Ellen Burchard, the well-known local actor who died in 2007 at 94.
Ms. Strickman said her first meeting with the generous host was memorable: “She comes out of her house and she’s got long, flowing blonde hair and little pink hot pants and ballet slippers — and she’s 80,” she said.
Ms. Strickman later learned about Sandywoods after talking with founders Joe Bossom and Mika Seeger at a party. She said Mr. Bossom, who wanted to turn his 174-acre farm into a rural artists colony, told her, “We’ve got all these visual artists, but we could really use some music people. Why don’t you start going to the meetings?”
She became one of the founding board members of the community, where the first rental cottages were ready in 2010. She served as president from 2011 until June of this year, when she bought a home at Sandywoods.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential here. Already, it’s amazing how much is going on,” she said, pointing to the colony’s orchard, garden, kitchen incubator, community center with live music, a future community arts studio and more.
Although she’s given up most of her gigs, Ms. Strickman is still involved in music. She teaches voice at her home as well as in Middletown. “Sandywoods offers opportunities for people to do what they do,” she said.
As she looks out her kitchen window to the east, Ms. Strickman brought up her childhood dream of living on a farm. Moving to Sandywoods, she said, has brought her full circle.
“Having been in New York for 30 years, I had this theory: When people look out and all they see is a building, all they’re doing is thinking about themselves.”
But when you look out a window and see nature, she said, “you start thinking that you’re a part of things.”