Anne Cullimore Decker’s home on the East Bench of Salt Lake City is a lot like Anne Cullimore Decker herself: elegant, gracious, artistic. One of Utah’s premiere dramatic artists, she’s worked in theater, opera, television, and film. Decker’s life is an inspiring journey through a commitment to art, family, and community.
Decker has been a mainstay of the Utah theater scene as an actor, director, and teacher. Countless students at the University of Utah learned their way on the stage from her. Now in her 70s, she is still one of Utah’s most active, prominent, and beloved actors. It’s surprising to learn, then, how relatively late in life she took up theater.
The Cullimores were a family that loved the arts. “My mother was very influential in seeing that we had good experiences in attending the arts,” Decker remembers. “We lived three doors off the BYU campus, and we went to all the concerts and performances.” Her first performance was when she was about 2 months old, portraying the baby Jesus in the family Christmas portrait. Though Decker had a lovely singing voice, she never thought about going into theater when she was growing up. “I wasn’t one of those actors who said, I have to do this,” she explains. “I loved the arts, but I didn’t have to be onstage.” In fact, she says she was shy and her first experience with the stage was traumatic. When she was 8 or 9 years old, her mother volunteered her services in a play. Decker went to the first rehearsal and came home crying, saying, “I don’t want to do this.” So her older sister filled in for her.
In high school, she was the theater reviewer for the school newspaper. “I was very critical, even though I had never been in a play,” she laughs. “Then we had a cute, young new drama teacher come in. So I took my first drama class.” Max Golightly, her drama teacher, liked her and prepared her for the state speech festival, where she did well. He continued to encourage her, saying, “I think you have some talent, and you could pursue a career in theater, but if you would rather be married with kids, you would be a good teacher.” Since she would sometimes go with her physician father on house calls, Decker had thought she would become a nurse, but the attention from her drama teacher “was flattering and gave me some direction,” she says. “I was being guided.”
Although Decker wasn’t thinking about an acting career as a girl, she was nevertheless soaking up a lot of theater. She recalls family trips to Salt Lake to see Judith Anderson in Hamlet and Charles Boyer, Tyrone Power, and Agnes Moorhead in Don Juan in Hell. “I went with my family to medical meetings in San Francisco, and we saw Charlotte Greenwood in The Winslow Boy,” she recalls. “I remember being very affected by the play. But I was not thinking, ‘I would like to do that.’ ” That changed when she and her older sister went to New York City for a week. “We stayed at the Edison Hotel, and paid $1.70 to see Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in Ondine by Giraudoux. We saw Deborah Kerr and Anthony Perkins in Tea andSympathy, and I was blown away.”
Decker started college at Brigham Young University, where Katherine Pardoe told her she didn’t have a voice for theater. So when auditions for The Taming of the Shrew came up, Decker attended with plans to be on the crew. But everyone who showed up was supposed to audition. “I got the part of Kate, and we toured around the state,” she says. “It was the first full-length play I did. I wasn’t good; I am overacting like crazy in the photos, you can tell. But it was a good start.”
Although she liked being onstage, Decker didn’t believe in herself as an actor yet. Because she wasn’t completely happy at BYU (she disliked having to take religion classes), she transferred to the University of Utah. At first, she didn’t audition for university productions; she just took acting classes. She loved her theater classes from C. Lowell Lees and Arch Heugley (“He was a Broadway actor and he was blind in one eye and very scary,” she laughs). Decker credits legendary U. theater Professor Robert Hyde Wilson with “discovering” her after seeing a student production she was in. “He said,” she recalls, mimicking Wilson’s trademark growl, “‘Who is that girl?’” Wilson cast her as Miss Madrigal in The Chalk Garden and her fellow student Jon Jory (the nationally renowned theater artist known for his work at the Actors Theatre of Louisville) in the role of Maitland. “So Jon Jory and I started our careers together at the U,” she says with a smile.
While still in college, Decker went to New York for two summers and took acting classes at the Herbert Berghof Studio under Uta Hagen. There, she watched talented actors going out on endless auditions without getting any work. “I remember leaving class one day and thinking, I am so glad I love the idea of teaching.” She loved the world of New York theater, but couldn’t envision herself acting there. She ended up majoring in Speech and minoring in English (there wasn’t a theater department at the U yet) and got a teaching certificate. Decker began teaching at East High School and took a role in Tiger at the Gates at Kingsbury Hall with the film actor John Ireland. Around this time, a former roommate set her up on a blind date with a returned Air Force airman named Ashby Decker. When Tiger at the Gates opened, he sent a bouquet of flowers to her dressing room. “Here is someone who knows opening-night protocol!” Decker remembers thinking to herself. “I called to thank him and asked, ‘So how did you like Tiger at the Gates?’ and he said, ‘I didn’t come,’ and I said, ‘Why not?’ and he said, ‘Because I heard it was bad.’ So I learned right then that he gives it to you straight.” She and Ashby married, she quit teaching, and the couple had three sons.
Decker still acted from time to time. “I was never one who did show after show after show,” says Decker. But when she was working, “Ashby was fabulous and would take care of the kids.” She had always assumed she would get an advanced degree, so she entered a master’s program at the U when their youngest was in fifth grade, timing her classes so she could be home by the time her sons were home from school. “I took four years to get my master’s because I was not in a hurry and loved the classes,” she recalls. The University of Utah’s theatre department had previously offered a graduate degree in acting, but it had been eliminated by the time Decker was applying; instead, the department offered an MFA in playwriting, directing, or design. She decided to apply for directing. Decker earned her master’s degree and started teaching, acting and directing at the University of Utah in the early 1980s. Decker continued to teach at the University until the mid-1990s, leaving in her wake many former students who cherish their time spent under her tutelage and with whom she still keeps in touch.
Since retiring, Decker has generously donated her time to the Utah Arts Council, Zoo Arts & Parks, Tier I Advisory Council, nowplayingutah.com, and the Salt Lake County Fine Arts Board. She and Ashby are avid supporters of the arts; they attend concerts five nights out of the week. This familiarity with the Utah arts scene has made her an expert advocate for the arts community.
When asked to list some of her favorite roles, it’s no surprise that Maria Callas in Terence McNally’s Master Class, a role she portrayed to great acclaim in 1998 and 2009 at Salt Lake Acting Company, is at the top of the list. As theater writer Celia R. Baker wrote in a 2009 Salt Lake Tribune profile of the actress: “Decker is onstage and in command throughout the show: rattling off torrents of Italian, setting up cues for the small parts that surround hers, singing snatches of operatic roles, and timing intricate interior monologues perfectly against tapes of Callas’ arias…Decker’s competent and solid performance in scenes with opera students gives way to something more profound when the sound of remembered arias initiates a flood of memories for Callas.” Decker says,“the role was hard to put to bed. Maria lived with me a long time.”
She mentions other favorite roles, such as: Golda in Fiddler on the Roof, Margo Channing in Applause, the sculptor Camille Claudel in Utah playwright Aden Ross’s K-Mille, and “B” in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Decker can think of only one role she wishes she could have played: “I have an enormous sadness for turning down The Lion in Winter, the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Ariel Balliff asked me to play that and we had a family vacation planned, so I said no, and I would have loved to have done it.”
Decker retired from directing some years ago. “As you get older, the sense of responsibility becomes overwhelming,” she explains. “You are in charge of everything and everyone, and as you get older, you think, I am not up to that. I want someone else to tell me what to do.” As she’s grown older, she’s grown to love acting more. “My experience at the Utah Shakespeare Festival [in 2004] was so great, because it was the first time in my life that, 24/7, my job was to focus on acting. I was reviewed and evaluated and appreciated by people who didn’t know me. So I backed off of directing. Now, my problem as an actor is that I shouldn’t try to direct when I’m acting. I am not sure I am always successful.”
Decker has done a number of film roles, including the recent independent film Darling Companion. “That was one of my better experiences with movies, because the actors were very interesting people off-camera,” she says. “Kevin Kline, Richard Jenkins, and I had some very interesting conversations. And the director, Larry Kasdan, was great.” But generally, Decker isn’t crazy about film or commercial work. “You don’t get the same creative juices going. The camera and editor are doing the work. The residuals are great, but it isn’t as rewarding. Decker believes it is the creative process that drives actors. “People don’t understand; they think the sound of applause drives us, which is rewarding — when your creative process gets the right responses from an audience — but it is the process of putting it together with other creative minds. That is what keeps us going.” Another bonus of the collaborative process is the bonding that happens with fellow performers and directors: “The relationships stay, even years later. My friendships are the people I have worked with in the arts. They really are.”
Now, each time Decker takes on a project, she thinks it might be her last. “When you’re my age, there are fewer roles,” she says. “If I can have any form of involvement that is great. I have a love for all of the arts, and I am grateful that I have had a life where I could both participate and appreciate them as an audience member. And I have a husband who also valued the arts. It doesn’t get better than that.”
This article originally appeared in the Artists of Utah publication Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists, published in 2014.
Alyssa Hickman Grove is a Salt Lake City writer and theatre artist. She studied at American Conservatory Theatre, the University of Edinburgh, San Francisco State, Utah State, and the University of Utah, where she received her BA in theatre. Alyssa has written for The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, Utah Business, Utah Homes and Garden, Salt Lake Observer, Ancestry, Catalyst, City Weekly, Utah Bride and Groom, Woodland Publishing and Ancestry.com.