Sylvia Bailey-Downing passed away Saturday May 29, 2021 at Riverview Medical Center. She was born in Bessemer, PA, lived in the Bronx and Brooklyn before settling in Union Beach, NJ.
Nothing gets old for Sylvia Bailey.
For more than 53 years she has been taking the bus from Union Beach to Manhattan. For half that time her commute has ended at the Majestic Theatre, where she is an usher for Broadway's longest-running play, The Phantom of the Opera.
Bailey is in the second act of her show business career — a slower version of the singing, dancing nighthawk on New York City's club circuit in the 1940s. But at 88, she works just as hard as she did then, putting in six shows a week, including two double-performances that have her out of the house at 9 a.m. and coming home after 10 p.m.
It is that demanding routine and her lifelong bent for Broadway that she says keeps her alive. In her 27 years at the theater, Bailey has taken few vacations and rarely called out sick. She missed about three weeks last year after superstorm Sandy flooded her home and nearly destroyed her living room.
"The Phantom ain't going nowhere, and neither am I," she said in a squeaky voice.
"We've been standing room the last two months. I'm staying on as long as he does."
Few people have seen Phantom, which surpassed 10,000 performances in February, more than Bailey. She knows the show "in and out," and even after a quarter-century she finds pleasure in watching the gothic mystery unfold on the stage.
Show business aim
Bailey was born in 1925 and raised in Bessemer, Pa., a small coal-mining town.
By the age of 3, she was taking 50-cent tap lessons at a Catholic school in nearby Masontown, she said.
"The show business was in me right from the start," Bailey said.
In 1937, her father, a coal miner, fell ill.
The family headed north to New York City and settled in the Bronx.
Bailey had to help support the family, so she found work singing on morning radio shows.
As a teenager she sang and danced at famous city nightclubs like The International Casino in Greenwich Village and the Roxy Theater near Times Square, where Bailey said she made $49 a week.
"I looked like I was about 19 or 20," Bailey said. "I fooled them."
She sang contralto and wore her auburn hair short with curls, just like she does today.
She would do her homework backstage, she said, and normally wouldn't get home until 4 a.m.
"I'd come home from work, take off my makeup, take off my fancy clothes and put on my school clothes and get the Third Avenue El (elevated train) and go right to school," she said, noting that she went to school for 12 years with perfect attendance. "I just liked school."
She loved show business more.
A favorite photo that was destroyed by Sandy shows her at the Roxy in a tight dress with ruffles flowing to the floor.
She refers to that time as "1940 B.C. — Before Children."
[Vintage image of Sylvia Bailey, date unknown, provided by the longtime 'Phantom of the Opera' usher herself.]
Vintage image of Sylvia Bailey, date unknown, provided by the longtime 'Phantom of the Opera' usher herself. (Photo: Gannett/Asbury Park (N.J.) Press)
In 1960 she moved to her tidy two-story home in Union Beach.
Raising her five children prompted her exit from show business, so during motherhood she worked for the City of New York as a stenographer.
But she grew tired of sitting behind a desk and took what she figured would be a part-time job at a diner on Broadway.
She ended up staying 22 years, until it closed in 1986.
During a snowstorm one night on the bus heading back to Union Beach, Bailey, already a widow, lamented the loss to a friend and neighbor, Rose Heslin, who had worked for the Shubert Organization, the titan theater company.
Two weeks later, Bailey started working at the Majestic Theater for the musical 42nd Street.
Her routine hasn't changed much since Phantom's opening night at the Majestic, on Jan. 27, 1988.
On one of her double-shift days this month, Bailey was out at the bus stop on Route 36 in Middletown, N.J., waiting for her morning driver, Academy bus driver Jose Martinez. He pulled up to the stop and took her bags.
"Jose, how ya doing?" Bailey said.
Bailey calls herself the maitre d' of the bus, receiving more hugs and kisses from fellow riders than she can count. And everyone knows not to sit in the front passenger seat.
"This is my seat. I bought it," she said. "I've been going 55 years."
Bailey sat down and made small talk with Martinez, as they usually do, about their families and their workdays. Martinez will often ask about her ride back home the night before and who drove her.
"I came home with Larry last night," she told Martinez.
She always gets to the Port Authority bus terminal at least two hours before curtain and always stops at Port Deli, on the corner of Eighth and 43rd. She slaps her city tabloids down on the counter and walks to the rear to order a sandwich, pick out yogurt and, of course, schmooze.
"Good morning, Raul," she says.
"Good morning, boss. How are you today, boss?"
Then she walks over to the Majestic, her home away from home.
When she isn't working, she is running errands with her daughter, Patricia, who is also helping oversee the repairs to the living room, which had to be gutted after Sandy. Otherwise Bailey tends to indulge in NCIS marathons on her flat-screen television, which she admits she will do "until I'm blue in the face."
But in the big city, and at the Majestic, she springs to life.
On a recent workday, before the theater opened, she examined the empty theater, opened her arms and sang the bar, "Welcome to my world."
In black slacks, a black jacket and a blue silk scarf with her name tag pinned to it, Bailey walked up the stairs to her post in the orchestra. A crowd waited in the lobby below. Curtain was at 2 p.m.
Bailey stuffed the Playbills with inserts and chatted with other employees. At 1:30, she got the cue.
She leaned over the stairwell and shouted down to the crowd.
"House is open!" she said. "The house is open!!!
Funeral services for Sylvia will be private
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