Choctaw legend still remembered 80 years later for leading role in Broadway’s ‘Oklahoma!’
By Shelia Kirven
April 3, 2023
Most people recognize these lyrics from the Rodgers and Hammerstein award-winning Broadway musical, “OKLAHOMA!” Choctaw tribal member Ridgely “Ridge” McClure Bond became famous for his portrayal of Curly McLain. His powerful performance even persuaded state legislators to vote the title song as the official song for the State of Oklahoma.
Ridge was the only Native American and the only Choctaw from Oklahoma to appear in the original Broadway production. He performed the role over 2,000 times during his career.
OKLAHOMA! takes place at the beginning of the 20th century in Indian Territory. It is based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs.” It first opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943, and ran for almost six years. It was performed at 40 touring matinees for armed forces members. The production won a Special Pulitzer Prize, Special Tony Award and became an Academy Award-winning film in 1955.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, nearly five million people saw the production during its original Broadway run and over 10 million saw its national road tour from 1943 to 1954.
This year “OKLAHOMA!” celebrates its 80th anniversary.
Ridge Bond was born in McAlester, Oklahoma, on July 12, 1922, to Benjamin Franklin Bond and Jeanette Baer. Benjamin attended Jones Academy in Hartshorne, Oklahoma, and became McAlester’s postmaster and a commercial real estate owner. Benjamin’s grandfather, George M. Bond, was the first county judge of Jefferson County, a teacher for the Choctaws for over 15 years and was active in opening coal deposits in Choctaw country. He bought the land and laid out the towns of Hartshorne and Wilburton (okgenweb.net.) He married Narcissa McClure, a Choctaw original enrollee and sister of Isaac McClure, who was Senator of the Choctaw Nation from Bokhoma and Bok Tuklo counties (McCurtain County Historical Society.) Family members of the McClure family say they rode with Indian Territory Marshalls as Lighthorsemen.
Ridge graduated from McAlester Public Schools. He began singing as a child at the local Episcopal church, where his mother played the organ. She passed away when Ridge was seven years old, but he continued singing and playing the harmonica throughout high school.
He won a voice scholarship to the University of Tulsa (TU) School of Drama, where he attended from 1939-1943 and graduated with honors. While at TU he was cast as lead in “Green Grow the Lilacs,” written by another Oklahoman, Lynn Riggs. “OKLAHOMA!” was derived from that play.
While at TU, Bond met Maxine Vincent, daughter of world champion outboard boat racer Frank Vincent, and they married in 1943. Maxine received her art degree and became a well-known museum restoration artist. They were married for 54 years. Maxine passed away in 2008.
The Bonds had two children, Geoffrey “Geoff” and Pamela “Pam.” Geoff is a producer, musician, sound engineer and platinum award-winner for the audio post-production of the video “This is Garth Brooks.” He has worked for many musical groups, including AC/DC and Bon Jovi, and worked on remixing the original legendary Jimi Hendrix tapes from the masters into 3-D sound. He was also a contributor to the movie, “Twister.” Pam is a retired teacher and author of children’s books, including “The Horse with the Dragonfly on her Nose – Life lessons from Maggie the Horse.” Her next book, “Big Chief’s Big Day,” will come out soon.
Ridge joined the U.S. Navy after he graduated from TU and was on active duty during WWII as a naval officer in the Torpedo Boat Division.
After his discharge in 1946, he and Maxine went straight to New York City, and he worked for CBS and RCA. His voice teacher encouraged Ridge to audition for “Oklahoma!” as the understudy role of Curly, since Howard Keel, the current lead, would be leaving to star in another show. Composer Richard Rodgers was said to have loved the audition and asked Ridge to meet lyricist Oscar Hammerstein the next day. In a Tulsa Daily World interview, Bond noted the first day he auditioned in cowboy boots, jeans and a red shirt. He then used all his money to buy a suit for the callback. Ridge said, “And when I walked in, Rodgers said, ‘What the hell have you got that damned suit on for? Take that coat and tie off, roll up those sleeves, muss up that hair, and do that thing you did yesterday.” He got the part, and seven months after being understudy, he stepped into the role of Curly permanently.
In 1951, the U.S. State Department sent the entire company of “OKLAHOMA!” to West Berlin to perform at the Berlin Arts Festival as a goodwill gesture. The performances were in bombed-out theaters without chairs, and the audiences sat on straw. They also performed at the Titania-Palast Theater.
Maxine kept a diary and wrote of the experience, “The State Department told us we had a job to do and there was 100% cooperation in trying extra hard to win over an audience that did not understand first, English, and second the colloquialism of Oklahomans. But they loved it, and we played to lengthy standing ovations every night. We all felt we were putting a dent in Russia’s Iron Curtain.”
Ridge appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Kate Smith Show,” “Show Time USA” and the national live CBS TV program “Omnibus,” one of the highest-rated TV shows of the time. Pam said she remembers watching her father perform on the show as a child and was thrilled when she could see the newly discovered video again years later and could hear her father sing.
In April 1953, Oklahoma State Representative and future Oklahoma governor George Nigh introduced a bill to change the state song from the old-fashioned “Oklahoma-A Toast” to the cheerful title song of the musical “OKLAHOMA!” Having an opponent to the Bill, Rep. Nigh tabled the floor and called Ridge, his childhood friend, asking him to sing the song with the choir from the Oklahoma College for Women of Chickasha on the house floor the next day. According to the Oklahoma State Historical Society, Ridge came in full costume and burst into the session singing “Oklahoma!” Everyone stood and cheered, and House Bill 1094 passed immediately. The Senate ratified the bill eight days later. The measure passed and became effective September 5, 1953.
Ridge eventually settled the family in Tulsa where he appeared in local commercials and television shows, including the “Ridge Bond Show,” becoming a television personality for ABC affiliate KTUL-TV and CBS affiliate KOTV. He worked with his friend, composer, lyricist and singer Ralph Blane (“Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) on the Miss Oklahoma Pageant. He was a judge and helped Blane produce pageants in Broken Arrow. He also starred in the Tulsa Little Theater productions of “Kiss Me Kate,” “Kismet” and “Melody Circus,” performing in the United States and Canada.
He continued to sing at church where he and Geoff were active in the choir for many years. He also became an insurance executive and district coordinator for the American Family Life Insurance Company. In 1991, he was honored with the Lynn Riggs Award, presented by Rogers State University for “distinguished contributions to the arts” and named Ambassador of Goodwill for the Sooner State by the Oklahoma Heritage Association in 1993.
On March 30, 1993, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp celebrating the 50th year of the Broadway opening of “OKLAHOMA!” with Ridge’s likeness as Curly featured.
The same year he was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
Ridge Bond died in Tulsa in 1997 at age 74. He and Maxine are buried in the Will Rogers Cemetery in Claremore, Oklahoma.
He was nominated posthumously in 2015 to the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, referred to as “Mr. Oklahoma” and ambassador. The nomination noted that when the “OKLAHOMA!” production was sent to West Berlin, the performances were broadcast on Radio Free Europe and on large-screen receivers around West Berlin. Over 750,000 Germans and U.S. military personnel saw the performances. Even residents of Russian-controlled East Berlin snuck into the performances. Nominator Roberta Scott-Hamilton wrote that his performances were “a triumph in international diplomacy” and that “every time we sing our state song, we can thank Ridge Bond.”
Looking back, Pam and Geoff have very fond memories of their father and are proud of their family history. Pam said, “We were always told and felt really proud of our heritage. I have a great family history, and I am so lucky to be born in that family.” She continued, “He [Ridge] was so proud to be Choctaw, and he was a pretty amazing man and a great representative for the Choctaws.” Some of her fondest memories are of seeing her father perform.
Geoff said his mother was entirely behind their father, very supportive (even when Ridge was on stage as Geoff was born) and a good critic. He remembers his father saying, “Your audience is precious,” and “Take the stage so your audience can relax and enjoy your performance.” He also remembered him saying that show business was tough and one needed to be very self-confident and disciplined, hard-working and have some lucky breaks to succeed.
For more information on the Ridge Bond legacy and to watch clips from the 1954 television series, “Omnibus,” please visit the official website.