After taking the helm of Nassau County’s Office of Cultural Development, Marcia O’Brien, a former light opera singer from Michigan, became a powerful influence in the county arts scene, distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to big and small groups in the 1970s and '80s, while planning “Gatsby”-like galas and fancy balls and festivals at historic county properties.
O’Brien, who died March 25 at age 95 after a bout with pneumonia, was dubbed “Earth Mother” for the arts by colleagues and those who knew her well.
“She tried to do what she felt was right for the arts,” recalled her daughter, Kathleen Schlichtig of Bellmore. O’Brien would bring Manhattan performers, such as the Metropolitan Opera, to Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, for example.
“She liked the fact that she could bring things to Nassau County that some people would not otherwise have been exposed to,” Schlichtig said. “It’s expensive to go into the city to go to the opera.”
O’Brien, a staunch Republican, grew up in small-town Mancelona, Michigan, before moving to Highland Park, outside Detroit. She graduated as a voice major from the Detroit Conservatory of Music and sang at concerts and professionally with groups including the Detroit conservatory, the Atlanta Light Opera and the Pittsburgh Light Opera.
Marcia was in Atlanta for a concert when she met her future husband, the stage hand Mortimer “Snooks” O’Brien, who would work later as a stage manager at CBS, including at the very beginning of “Sesame Street.” (His brother, Chester “Chet” O’Brien, was a production manager on the show and played Mr. Macintosh, the neighborhood supplier of fruit and vegetables.) Mortimer O’Brien died in 1992.
The O’Briens lived in Detroit before moving to New York. They lived in Hollis, Queens, then Bellerose, and later, Lido Beach.
O’Brien was heavily involved in local parent-teacher associations and Republican political committees. “She was definitely a Republican, do or die,” Schlichtig said.
She was well known in Republican circles when she took the helm of the culture office in 1978, after serving as office manager for the campaign of County Executive Francis Purcell. She served as the office’s head for 12 years.
The department was not immune to the controversies of county government, with reports of staff revolt and conflict, including over management of the Frick Estate in Roslyn Harbor, now known as the Nassau County Museum of Art, according to news reports.
O’Brien was credited with shoring up funds for the museum’s renovation, beefing up funding for arts groups and establishing new events, including a three-day Labor Day festival that attracted several hundred thousand revelers, Newsday reported in 1982.
Another favorite was the June Arts Jubilee, Schlichtig said.
“Her true love was always the arts,” Schlichtig said.
Her mother was known to dip into her own funds to pay for little touches, like having strawberries and cream for dessert at chamber ensembles.
In her later years, O’Brien had moved to Garden City and was known to frequent Seventh Street, the village’s busy commercial strip. She was a regular at The Burger Spot, where she had a corner table. “Everyone on the whole avenue knew her,” her daughter said.
O’Brien is also survived by son Brian O’Brien of West Hempstead, two granddaughters and three great-grandchildren.
O’Brien was cremated. A private family service will be held next month in Mancelona, Michigan.