When I mentioned to my husband that Joy Bingham Strimple had died, he looked briefly confused.
“But I just saw her at the grocery the other day.”
Strimple’s death took a lot of people by surprise, according to Stray Cat Theatre founder Ron May. He said she was “a real force of nature and a grand dame of the Valley theater scene if ever there was one.”
The actress, who died from heart failure on February 12, at age 79, was a fixture in local theater. She was known as a principal in both Arizona Women's Theatre and its new works showcase The Pandora Festival. She was also a proponent of females in the performing arts, and appeared onstage in numerous community productions and directed even more of them.
“Joy was a masterful director,” says Kandyce Hughes, a friend and colleague of Strimple’s. “As a former dancer, she had a keen eye for stage movement and blocking. She left her mark all over theater in the Valley.”
Strimple looked like a strong wind could knock her over, according to actress Petey Swartz. “But I knew her to be tough as nails. She rocked skin-tight pants and sky-high heels. And always, always, a crazy-cool vintage hat.”
People often mention Strimple’s hats. She collected them, as well as vintage fascinators, and wore a different one to the theater pretty much every weekend. When she wasn’t appearing in a play or directing one, she was sharing opinions about one she’d recently seen.
“If anyone was going to speak hyperbolically about the work, it was going to be Joy,” says May. “She always had the absolute kindest of kind things to say — bold, but at their essence, kind. I don't think she ever called me by my name. She called me ‘that famous director.’”
Strimple’s husband died in 1985, leaving her a widow at age 44 with two young daughters to raise. “She taught us the great cornerstones of theater as metaphors in life,” her daughter Lilyan Von Strimple recalls. “Always find your light, always know our audience, always come prepared. And always respect everyone.”
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I asked my husband what he and Joy Bingham Strimple talked about when he ran into her at the market. “Theater?” I asked. “Hats?”
“No,” he replied. “She asked how your mother was doing these days. She wanted to talk about how hard it is to make the right decisions in life, and how important it is that everyone keep trying to.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Was she wearing a hat?” I asked.
He looked at me like I was crazy. “What do you think?” he replied.