Cathy Rigby, a sexagenarian grandma who still performs acrobatic feats on-stage, is all too aware how closely her own story resembles that of Peter Pan, the kid who never grew up.
In fact, reached at her home in California, the vivacious 62-year-old still sounds like the pint-sized gymnast who stole a nation’s heart at the 1968 Olympics. “Adults usually don’t get the chance to go back and relive childhood every night,” the cheery performer says over the phone to the Straight, before heading here for shows of the musical Peter Pan at the Pacific National Exhibition. “Over the years, I’ve learned I just have to let the adult get out of the way and let the inner child come out.”
Rigby has had several decades and thousands of performances as “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” to finesse the role. Having retired from gymnastics at the young age of 19, she didn’t know what she was going to do with her life when she first took the part of Peter Pan back in 1974 as part of a touring production. Because she was untrained in theatre at that time, they used a voice-over for her singing parts.
But Rigby enjoyed the stage, and if gymnastics had taught her anything, it was discipline—that you could learn to do any task well if you just worked hard at it.
She embarked on voice and acting lessons, and starred in shows like The Wizard of Oz and Annie Get Your Gun. But it was in Peter Pan that her stage career really took flight—and it’s now a role as closely associated with her as it was with Mary Martin in her own generation. Rigby played it on Broadway throughout the 1990s and has reprised it in touring shows ever since—continuing to do so despite several so-called farewell shows.
Visitors to the PNE’s Pacific Coliseum will see the preternaturally young-looking and fit star cavorting with the Lost Boys, duelling it out with Captain Hook, and flying high. Do the pummelling sword fights and aerial routines take more of a toll these days? “Not really,” she says.
“I might have to stretch more. I have two helpers who I have been doing this with for years,” she allows of the aerial technicians who hoist her aloft on wires for her midair spins and somersaults, “so I don’t have to worry about anything.”
The thrill of sailing several storeys over an audience, sometimes sprinkling fairy dust on them, still gives her a massive kick. “You can hear the oohs and aahs and I just love to see their faces,” she enthuses.
The still-blond-cropped icon clearly has no plans to slow down—in fact, she may be busier than ever. With her husband, Tom McCoy, she produces shows at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and helps run the McCoy Rigby Conservatory of the Arts, in Yorba Linda, California, where she teaches kids the skills of the stage—and no doubt reconnects with her own inner child some more.
She’s been a force, from her teenage years single-handedly popularizing gymnastics in the U.S. to spending her senior years embracing the role of a character who’s frozen at a small fraction of her own age. Now maybe she can share a little of whatever fairy dust she’s using with the rest
Peter Pan runs at the Pacific Coliseum nightly from Saturday (August 22) to September 7 as part of the Pacific National Exhibition.