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Maxine Browning Bianculli, aka,“Mrs. B,” long-time resident of both Fort Lee, NJ and Saint Cloud, Florida will best be remembered as a creative force. She was a singer, actress, homemaker, director, playwright, songwriter theatre founder, and activist. She passed away peacefully on April 20, 2009 surrounded by her three children, John Jr., Donna Harris and Michael and two grandchildren Ryan and Nicole. Born in Jacksonville, Florida on June 17, 1929, she was the daughter of Mary Beulah Page and John Shafter Browning. Her maternal ancestors from England were pages to the King. She is survived by ten nieces and nephews and one stepsister Martha Jackson. She had two sisters Jacqueline and Mildred, one brother Gilford (a teacher and principal of Jacksonville Junior College,) and one foster sister Mary Sinabald. She was married for 44 years to John Rocco Bianculli Sr., aka “Johnny Smash,” singer, bassist, drummer, film actor, and the love of her life.
After high school in 1947, and before meeting her beloved husband in 1954, she worked for Southern Bell Telephone as an operator in Jacksonville for four years. Then she headed to New York City in 1950, with her gifted voice and passionate vocal performance, to pursue careers in acting and singing. She attended the Herbert Berghoff School of Musical Theater studying with comedic actors, Charles Nelson Reilly and Elaine May. She was offered a singing contract by TV star, Mary Small, perfected a night club act and worked for actress Eileen Heckart on Broadway. She met her husband John in 1954 at Tony Pastor’s Nightclub where he saw her perform her act.
The show-biz couple married in June of l955 at The Little Church Around the Corner in Manhattan, and settled in Little Italy in Greenwich Village. In 1968, Maxine and family moved to their first home in Fort Lee, NJ where their three children enjoyed a big backyard and all the joys of growing up in a small town. Husband John worked in NY nightclubs as head Maitre`D from 1957 to 1985, most notably “Jilly’s,” a favorite hangout of Frank Sinatra. “Best of all, for John, were his frequent singing duos at Jilly`s with Sinatra!” said Maxine. John played bit-parts in movies together with Ole Blue Eyes and acted on TV in soap operas such as “Another World,” and “The Doctors.”
Meanwhile, in the 1970’s, Maxine created children’s plays; hosted her own cable TV show “Meet Me at Maxine’s” interviewing town notables and celebrities like Phil Foster and husband Johnny Smash; joined the Fort Lee Women`s Club, performing her own one-woman show; and became founder, playwright, producer and director of the local theatre group "The Palisades Players”. Before finding a permanent home in a local storefront, previously owned by Harry Helmsley, they performed anywhere there was an open space in and around town, such as the local library, recreation center, high school, a docked boat in the Hudson River and even the town courtroom, where she mounted "Witness for the Prosecution.” She directed plays such as "California Suite,” “Come Back Little Sheba,” George Washington Slept Here," "You Know I Can`t Hear You When the Water`s Running,” "Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” ”Lovers & Other Strangers,” and musicals such as "Applause", "Promises, Promises" and a few "Way Off B`way" revues. Maxine remembered, “We branched out into "Children`s Theatre" complete with Chimpanzee Visits & private Birthday Bashes for the local little ones. We received government grants & built an ongoing membership and it was a Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland summer dream all year long for us. My little (son) Mike was my shadow & always knew everyone`s part better than they did!”
The other major creative endeavor in her life was her children. She spoke of them with great pride. “Our oldest son, Johnny Jr., who is a combo of both John, Sr. and myself, graduated from Rutgers Univ. in New Brunswick, N.J. Our daughter, Donna, who is an Italian beauty like her Dad and rather ‘gung ho’ like me, is a graduate of Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers U. Our youngest son, Michael, has been employed by Disney World in Orlando, Fl. For the past 19 years. Both Johnny, Jr. and Donna have successful careers in the entertainment business. They have their own bands and often perform together in N.Y. and N.J. Johnny is an accomplished pianist and songwriter, whose music has been recorded on CD`s. Our Donna is a lovely, tall, vivacious beauty who has sung in Europe, South America, Africa and across the states.”
She gushed “John, Sr. was always so great about agreeing to anything I wanted to do. But in 1985 when Jilly`s closed, John retired. I felt I had made more than one dream come true and so I decided to get a job and bring some real money into our home. I did as a hotel desk clerk, a high rise condo assistant manager and finally a part time bookkeeper. Because no one wanted the responsibilities that I had as producer and director of the “Palisades Players,” when I resigned, the group folded. Then in 1987 John, Sr. had a heart attack but thank goodness, he survived it. He decided it was also time for him to retire from his movie career. In 1992 we sold our Fort Lee home and were going to buy a home in Cape May, N.J. but Michael wanted us to move to Kissimmee, Fl. where he lived and had married in 1990. We bought a lovely home in Sherwood Forest in Kissimmee but after four yrs. of paying "lot rent", we decided to buy a home with land. So we ended up in St. Cloud, Fl.”
It was here that Maxine became a community activist as she had been politically active in Fort Lee. And it was here that her husband John died at age 83 in 1999 after a four-year struggle with heart and kidney challenges. Maxine continued “He was never a complainer & I`ll never know how he survived his brave struggle. But we had a fantastic 44 yrs. together & he passed away very quickly in my arms. So God has truly blessed me and continues to do the same thru my children & grandchildren.”
Maxine considered herself “blessed, lucky & busy!” After losing her husband she stated “I have spent most of my time weeding out my overstuffed home. History was always my favorite school subject, so it is no surprise that I started collecting and researching antiques since 1977. So Mike & I ventured out to all the estate and garage sales and I became hooked. Our homes have always been furnished in ‘Early Abandon’ for which I am now very happy. What was a necessity has now become quite valuable. I often have garage sales to pass on my trash and treasures to others but then I always wanted my own antique shop. (We Geminis never stop)!!!!
At the age of 75, she developed a love of songwriting and inspired her children to arrange, produce and perform a beautiful original CD called “Remembering You.” She was quoted as saying “This of course keeps me busy & out of trouble--my love of writing songs. I have written five I think are possible hits! Remind me to call ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber.’ Johnny, Jr. wrote the music for my first song called ‘100 Shades of Dazzling Green’ about Ireland with Donna singing this one and several others. Brag, Brag, Brag!!!”
In her golden years, Maxine stated characteristically with passion, “I guess by now I have had a lifetime of volunteering and want to just relax, smell the roses, babysit, pursue my family history & enjoy my relatives & friends; in that order!” She will be sorely missed by all who knew her.
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