Nancy Erickson, whose Wit’s End Players epitomized cabaret comedy in Atlanta for 35 years, balanced a show business career with raising four children.
“We’d see her around the house doing ironing and laundry and regular housewife duties, then she would transform herself at night to go to work,” daughter Kristin Kabbenjian of Sandy Springs said. “She’d put on makeup and eyelashes and become this glamorous nightclub performer.”
Erickson, 90, died Dec. 14 of complications from injuries suffered in a fall, son Stephen Erickson of Roswell said. The family will have a private memorial service at Arlington Memorial Cemetery in Sandy Springs, but plans a celebration of her life sometime in January.
Nancy Erickson’s example made a big impression on young Kristin, who began performing onstage at age 8 and joined the Wit’s End Players after college.
Her mother also started early. Nancy Jo Ramey and future husband Phil Erickson were members of the drama club in high school in Danville, Ill., and competed to become president. (Phil won.)
Another friend in Danville, Dick Van Dyke, teamed up with Phil in the Merry Mutes, a pantomime comedy duo that secured a long engagement at the Henry Grady Hotel in Atlanta, which led the Ericksons to relocate here in 1949.
After Van Dyke went on to Broadway, Nancy took his place in the act and the Wit’s End satirical troupe was born.
“I think my Mom enjoyed it as much as my Dad,” Stephen Erickson said, “though she joked that she always got second billing.”
The two had their own club, the Wit’s End Theater, for many years at 5th and Peachtree streets, then took the act to other dinner clubs and enjoyed a long run at Gene & Gabe’s in Midtown. The foibles of Atlanta as a striving city provided a rich supply of targets for the Wit’s End brand of satire, which took aim at traffic, Southern belles and even race relations.
The Ku Klux Klan did not escape being parodied, though in their sketch about the “friendly neighborhood Klan” the Ericksons wore hoods made from striped sheets. “We got picketed by the KKK,” Kabbenjian said, adding that the Klan probably objected to the fact that the Wit’s End audience and cast had both been integrated since the mid-1950s.
The ensemble turned into an incubator for theatrical talent. Bonnie and Terry Turner, early members and writers for the group, went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” and create the hit TV shows “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “That 70’s Show.” Jan Hooks, another “SNL” alum, was also a Wit’s End member, and novelist Terry Kay, who was originally trained in theater, directed several shows for the group.
“The beautiful thing about it was, they loved it, it was fun,” Kay said. “It came across in everything they did.”
The Wit’s End Players ceased performing regularly in 1987, but continued putting on shows for conventions and doing other corporate work.
Phil Erickson died in 1999. After that, Nancy Erickson organized a revived Wit’s End Players to perform in nursing homes and at assisted living facilities.
“She was very much a people person, and enjoyed having family around,” Stephen Erickson said. “We used to spend Christmas together as a family, all 27 Ericksons, and this will be the first year that that won’t happen.”
Additional survivors include two other children, Shari Gifford of Cashiers, N.C., and James P. Erickson Jr. of Johns Creek; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.