June 8, 2016 Edition

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ABC actress' star first shone
at WR's Front Street Theatre

Mary Hollis Inboden greets Donna Kimes, family friend and former news anchor at KAIT, during a premiere party at Jonesboro for Inboden's new series, “The Real O'Neals,” which premiered in March on ABC.
Submitted photo

Gretchen Hunt

As a young child, Mary Hollis Inboden often accompanied her father to Front Street Theatre in Walnut Ridge, where he helped Carrie Mae Snapp with set building.

Snapp was able to see Inboden recently, while she was visiting her parents, Kim and Toni, and brother, Lee, in Bono for the premiere of her new ABC show, "The Real O'Neals."

She recalled the child actor who thrived on the stage at Front Street Theatre.

"You knew when you met Mary Hollis as a five-year-old that she was a unique person," Snapp said. "She knew from a very early age what she wanted to do. That's a wonderful gift!"

Inboden said some of her earliest memories are of falling asleep in the lighting/sound booth to the sound of rehearsals or her father and Snapp hammering away.

"Pretty early on it was a passion of mine to be in the theater," Inboden said.

She recalled when her father was finally convinced to come out from behind the scenes and perform in "Crimes of the Heart."

"He was so great," she said. "The whole show was so great. Front Street production quality was always so good!"

Soon after, Front Street featured a production of "Pump Boys and Dinettes." While her father was working on lighting, little Mary Hollis found her way to the stage.

"I got up on stage with a wooden spoon and started doing all the music from the show," she said. "Robyn Engelken was in the show and she said, 'Uh oh, someone is about to take my job.'"

Leslie Rutledge recalled a similar experience.

"My very first memory, and probably my favorite, is coming to the theater lobby for a rehearsal for a New Year's show that was different excerpts of Broadway musicals," Rutledge said. "I came in the lobby and heard this voice singing. It was a big, bold, beautiful voice. I could not imagine who it could be. I opened the door to the theater and there on stage was this beautiful little girl belting out "On My Own" from "Les Miserables." I instantly was in love with that voice and that song. It is still my favorite Broadway song, and I still picture Mary Hollis every time I hear it."

Ginger Bibb, another Front Street regular, said Inboden was the perfect example of a "child star."

"When I first met her she was really young and inordinately focused on learning her craft, but minus the negatives you might associate with child stars," Bibb said. "She was very engaging and energetic and cute as a bug's ear."

Inboden also recalled attending summer camps at Front Street, which she said were "always a blast." She attended school at Westside, which didn't have a drama department.

"Front Street was my extracurricular activity," she said. "I had a blast in every show I did."

But as far as shaping her into the actress she has become, she gives a lot of credit to the time she spent watching others at Front Street.

"I really remember the shows that I saw," she said. "I was really more influenced by the people I got to watch, seeing them work, rehearse and the final product."

She recalled the professional manner in which Snapp conducted herself and the way she talked to her performers and crew.

"All of these things, even before I knew, helped form me into the performer I am," she said.

She said her favorite moments from her Front Street days were just being in the theater.

"Those were the moments - seeing the true artistry, hearing the adult conversations, all of that helped me, benefitted me," she said. "Now, I'm not only a person who loves to be on stage, but a performer who also could sit backstage all day."

Snapp said Inboden understands that everyone has to work together to make any kind of show a success.

"She's good with other people, and she doesn't mind getting a little dirty," Snapp said. "She also knows that sometimes you have to fill in during an emergency. In a production of Pippin she played not only the ingénue but also the boyfriend's grandmother. I don't know what else to tell you about Mary except that she's great fun, she's good people and I'm proud of her. Boy, am I proud of her."

From Memphis
to Chicago

After doing theater in Memphis, Inboden moved to Chicago, where she hit the ground running.

"I became a more polished actor in Chicago," she said. "I learned new tricks and ways to be funny. I became an adult actor as I learned what I was good at."

Still, she never anticipated transitioning to TV or movies.

"I thought I'd be in live theater for the rest of my life," she said.

But when Chicago began to see an influx in television show production, Inboden's agent sent her to one of the casting houses in Chicago.

"The Chicago Code had some smaller roles they were filling with local talent," Inboden said. "I was just supposed to have one line in the first episode, but that one-liner turned into five episodes."

Then came what she calls her "big break" when she was cast to do several episodes on Starz' critically-acclaimed series "Boss."

Her move to Los Angeles was also not in the plans.

"I loved Chicago," she said. "I didn't have plans to move."

But while working a temp job, she got a call from a manager in LA who had seen a web series she and a friend had produced.

"My roots at Front Street Theatre had provided me with the creativity to make something out of nothing," she said. "You learn to do it yourself."

When the manager happened to come across the series she called Inboden.

"I had friends in LA, so I set up a trip," she said. "I got out here and I enjoyed talking to her. She had a good plan for me. I knew I would be in good hands."

Her new manager encouraged her to return to LA during a two-month period when new shows do the bulk of their casting.

"So I took money out of savings and my supportive parents pitched in," she said. "My plan was to run through the money and see what happened."

The Real O'Neals

After several auditions, Inboden got the call to be part of a pilot for what became "The Real O'Neals" as Aunt Jodi.

"We shot the pilot and it was a great time," she said. "I loved the cast. I really wanted a future for the show.

Of approximately 200 pilots, only around 20 are made, according to Inboden.

"There is huge room for error," she said. "I understand from a lot of actor stories there is no rhyme or reason. It's not just luck, it's a little bit of magic. I'm really good at what I do, but I was in the right place at the right time."

The show was picked up in May of 2015, and the cast, including Inboden, shot 13 episodes in the fall, with the show premiering on ABC on March 2 of this year.

"The show has been critically-acclaimed and widely-received, but we don't know about a second season yet," Inboden said.

Just as Inboden remembers her fellow actors at Front Street Theatre fondly, they also recall great moments from the past, as well as look forward to more great moments in the future.

"I have followed her as she has grown into an amazing woman and has continued to be an outstanding actor," Rutledge said. "I say continued because she was outstanding as a child. There was no question for those of us who got the experience of working with her in the very early days that she was destined to be a star. I am so proud to be able to say I knew her when!"

Joyce Rose recalled specifically Inboden's performance in "The Princess and the Pea."

"She was superb," Rose said of her performance in that show. "Mary Hollis was a delight to be around with her bubbly personality. She was and is very talented - both singing and acting. I have great memories of being in plays with her at Front Street. I am so thrilled for her success."

As she continues to find new successes in her career, she still remembers with gratitude the time she spent at Front Street Theatre. She named off many of the regulars who were so loved by the audiences in Walnut Ridge.

"All these people were people I watched and admired, and I thought, 'I want to do that some day,'" she said. "It was community theater, but it was professional theater because of the integrity of the artists and craftspeople."

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