Monica Horan Rosenthal would be the first to tell you that when it comes to being an honorary producer of My General Tubman at the Arden Theatre, the key word is “honorary.”
“It really is another avenue of supporting the theater,” said Rosenthal, an Arden board member, of the designation that’s become another way for arts organizations to recognize their large donors.
But for the Delaware County-raised actress, known to millions as Amy MacDougall Barone of the 1996-2005 hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, helping to support the world premiere of Lorene Cary’s play about Underground Railroad icon Harriet Tubman was about more than writing a check to an organization she’s given to for years.
“I’ve been obsessed with Harriet Tubman since I was a child. She was my childhood hero," said Rosenthal, whose husband, Phil, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond and the producer and star of Netflix’s food and travel show, Somebody Feed Phil, posted pictures on Facebook in 2016 of her joyful reaction to the news that Tubman was to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. (That change has been put on hold by the Trump administration.)
“And Lorene, I mean, she’s just such a Philadelphia treasure,” she said of the playwright, whose process she was able to watch unfold, by seeing "the play at various stages, with readings and things like that.”
Rosenthal, who grew up in Aldan and is an Archbishop Prendergast High School grad, said she was always interested in Tubman’s “spiritualism and the stories of her being clairvoyant,” and that the way Cary incorporated those things into her story, which takes place in both Tubman’s time and present day Philadelphia, “fed into my Harriet fan girl thing.”
Rosenthal lives in Los Angeles, but her ties to the Arden’s leadership predate the theater, founded in 1988 by Terrence J. Nolen, Amy Murphy, and Aaron Posner.
She first met Murphy in the sixth or seventh grade. "We were in the Aldan Fourth of July parade together with our siblings.”
She and Nolen, who’s now married to Murphy, dated in high school and went to the prom together.
“We met at [Upper Darby Performing Arts Center’s] Summer Stage and started dating around the time” that the two appeared together in Prendergast’s production of Godspell, Nolen said. “I went to Upper Darby High School, down the block,” and was brought into play Jesus at the then all-girls school. (Prendergast has since merged with Monsignor Bonner.)
The two eventually went their separate ways, but remained friends, Nolen said, becoming closer in recent years as Rosenthal has spent more time in this area to be with her mother.
“It’s so funny because all these years later, when I finally reconnected with the Arden and with Terry, and I brought Phil, and Phil and Terry met, and … they completely hit it off,” Rosenthal said. Watching them, she realized that she “was drawn to the same personality when I was 16 as I was when I was 23," when she met her husband.
Both men are “very creative, strong leaders,” she said, adding that Nolen and Murphy are “really a dynamic couple.”
The Arden lists the Rosenthal Family Foundation, which was founded by Phil and Monica in the wake of Raymond’s success and funds a wide variety of arts and social justice programs, among its largest institutional sponsors. But the most personal expression of the couple’s support for the theater company carries the name the actress still uses professionally: Horan.
The 100-seat Bob and Selma Horan Studio Theatre — affectionately known as the Bob and Selma — is named for her mother and for her father, who died in 2009.
Transforming a space in the Arden’s Hamilton Family Arts Center into a small theater had been part of a capital campaign, and "that was the last thing left on it. And I was like, I want to do that for my parents. And I wanted to call it the Bob and Selma,” she said.
“My parents did not have the opportunities that I had. They were not able to go to college to pursue their dreams. They were working-class people," said Rosenthal, who majored in theater performance at Hofstra. Her father, a printing press mechanic for much of his life, later worked as a clerk at the courthouse in Media where Rosenthal’s mother was a clerk in the register of wills office.
“And most people, when kids say, ‘I want to be an actor,’ are not jumping up and down," she said. "My parents jumped up and down.” (The Rosenthals’ son, Ben, and daughter, Lily, are also actors, and they, too, have enthusiastic parents.)
It was her mother, who is living with Alzheimer’s, who helped bring her to the Arden, she said.
“When my mom started not doing so well,” she found herself flying home more often, and “as her issues increased, I actually ended up producing a play,” The Three Maries: A Philadelphia Phable, by Michael Ogborn, which premiered at the Prince Theater in December 2015.
“And I just ended up going to the Arden a lot. ... It started becoming a lifeline. Because things were tough with my family situation, with my mom not being well,” she said. “What theater is supposed to do is help process your life, process the world around you, and it was really doing that,” she said.
During an extended stay with her mother in the spring of 2017, she played Miss Cratchitt and Tessie Tura in Gypsy, the first time she’d been directed by Nolen since she’d been Miss Hannigan in Annie at Summer Stage.
Later that year, she brought her mother to see Kash Goins’ Seventy IV Seconds ... to judgment.
“My mother was not doing so well. And it was getting clear that she was not going to be able to probably live alone much longer and we were having to figure out what to do. But she came to this play. And it was really heavy. It was about the shooting of a young black man — boy, really — and then the deliberations of the jury. And we were there for a [postshow discussion]. … and my mother was just listening and it was going on a little long. And I didn’t know if she was even really getting it," Rosenthal said.
But afterward, her mother ran up to Goins, and “she threw her arms around him. And she said, ‘This is a very important story to tell. And you are just the person to tell it.’ I burst into tears. It was just such a moment. … Like, she is still there, you know,” she said.
“And that is the power of theater.”
“It’s an Alzheimer’s-y thing, but I called it ‘the wake while she’s awake,’” Rosenthal said of the November 2017 ribbon-cutting for the Bob and Selma, which became a “Philadelphia reunion” that included not only her mother and their extended family but neighbors from Magnolia Avenue in Glenolden, where the Horans lived until Monica was about 6, and others from her parents’ past.
Among those in attendance: actress Georgia Engel. The Mary Tyler Moore Show veteran, who died last April in Princeton, had a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond as Amy’s mother, Pat, a character Phil Rosenthal modeled after Selma Horan.
“I thought that was an inspired piece of casting, because that kind of sweetness [Engel had] is something Selma has, too,” said Nolen, who remembers from high school “how much she loved the arts and how much she enjoyed Monica’s adventures and Monica’s friends.”
It was Nolen, Rosenthal said, who sent her a copy of Cary’s memoir, Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century, “because my last three years had been all about elder care,” between getting her mother settled in a community known for its care of patients with dementia, and spending time in New York helping to oversee the care of her mother-in-law, Helen Rosenthal — one inspiration for Raymond’s Marie Barone — who died last fall.
Though Rosenthal has managed to squeeze in a few TV guest appearances, popping up last year in both The Bold and the Beautiful and FX’s Better Things, her first love, theater, has for now taken a back seat to family commitments and to work with two foundations.
Her start in philanthropy, too, had a Delaware County connection.
About the time Everybody Loves Raymond launched, Kevin Kane, a Summer Stage veteran who was also a college friend of Phil’s, was looking for funding for a theater program he was starting for students in Los Angeles. Kane and the Rosenthals went on to found the Flourish Foundation — now Versa-Style — with the goal, she said, of not just exposing schoolchildren to the arts, but offering "the possibility of a life informed by the arts.”