Joanna Pacitti, The 'Ousted Annie,' Wins Right to Appeal

By David Lefkowitz
September 2, 1999

Bet you thought this one was over and done with. A year ago, Philadelphia federal court judge James Giles ruled that Joanna Pacitti, the young contest winner who went on tour with Annie, but was fired as lead actress before the show reached Broadway, doesn't deserve recompense from Macys department store, which held the talent competition. "It is not like winning the `prize' of a new car for shooting a `hole in one' in golf," the judge was reported saying. "A Broadway role is not comparable to other contest awards."



Bet you thought this one was over and done with. A year ago, Philadelphia federal court judge James Giles ruled that Joanna Pacitti, the young contest winner who went on tour with Annie, but was fired as lead actress before the show reached Broadway, doesn't deserve recompense from Macys department store, which held the talent competition. "It is not like winning the `prize' of a new car for shooting a `hole in one' in golf," the judge was reported saying. "A Broadway role is not comparable to other contest awards."

Pacitti, her parents, and her lawyers, Albert Oehrle and Joseph Claffy, disagreed and filed an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which Macy's' lawyers tried to dismiss. According to Pacitti's manager, Patti Claffy, on Sept. 2, 1999 a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Pacitti does have the right to have her case tried. Pre-trial discovery will begin immediately, in the hopes that the case can be tried "possibly before Christmas," says Claffy. Alfred Putnam, of the Drinker, Biddle and Reath law firm, argued the appeal for Pacitti.

Now 14 and in high school, Pacitti is still pursuing a career in musical theatre and alternative pop. Two years ago she was one of the Kids in the "Broadway Kids Sing Broadway" Off-Broadway revue, and in fall 1998 she starred in Annie and The Secret Garden at the North Carolina Theatre.

A Macy's spokesperson told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 3), "We do not comment on pending litigation." Patti Claffy told PBOL (Sept. 3), "I spoke to Joanna yesterday, and she started to cry - she's grown up but the emotions are still there. She's aware this case is somewhat unprecedented, and the way it's decided will set the stage on how you can or cannot advertise a contest."

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It was nearly four years ago that Macy's and the producers of a Broadway bound, 20th Anniversary Annie tour held a 50-city search for a young lady to play the lead. Philadelphia native Pacitti won but was replaced after 106 performances on the road by understudy Brittny Kissinger, who went on to do the redheaded role in New York.

Pacitti -- dubbed "Little Ousted Annie" in the tabloids -- and her family filed a lawsuit against the sponsoring department store, charging them with reneging on the contest prize: starring in Annie on Broadway. Macy's asserted that the competition was not a contest, and that producers retain the right to fire cast members if they don't work out. A motion to dismiss the case had been denied by the court, but after discovery, Judge Giles did, indeed, dismiss the case.

To capitalize on interest in the trial, Pacitti released a cassette and CD single of Annie's signature tune, "Tomorrow."

Asked at the time how friends treated her during the weeks following her dismissal, Pacitti said they told her they were sorry about what happened. "They gave me a lot of sympathy and support. But they also said, `one door closes and another door opens.' And now I really believe things happen for a reason."

Shortly after the trial court's dismissal of the case, Claffy said, "The questions in this case are: 1) was it a contest? 2) what was promised through the advertising and publicity that Macy's carried out to attract young girls to the audition? I believe Joanna has the right to be heard by a jury on these issues."

Pacitti's own statement included the following: "I don't really understand the legal matters...I want to continue to fight so that no other child has to go through this..."

Adding extra embarrassment to Pacitti's predicament was a February 1997, ABC-TV airing of an hour-long documentary on the journey of Annie to Broadway. The show, "Turning Point," was rebroadcast -- and updated -- in July, by which time Pacitti had been let go.

Annie lyricist and director Martin Charnin had allowed "Turning Point" "unprecedented" access to shoot auditions of hundreds of young girls vying for the lead role and featured parts as orphans in the $4 million musical.

In interviewing those chosen, their mothers, and the original Broadway Annie, Andrea McArdle, "Turning Point" offered a front row seat to Annie's well-publicized talent search and its rocky aftermath: "Being Annie is probably every little girl's dream," said McArdle in the original broadcast. She was interviewed again for the July re-broadcast to comment on the firing and subsequent events. Ironically, McArdle was also a last-minute replacement to play Annie in the original 1997 production of the show.

In the July "Turning Point," McArdle is critical of the producers. "These were crazy adults acting desperately," she says, "because something wasn't how they thought it should be."

At the time of Pacitti's firing, Dorothy Loudon, the original Annie's villainess Miss Hannigan, said, "I feel terrible for Pacitti. When someone's let go, it's every actor's nightmare. It's never happened to me, thank God, but she must be shattered. It's a terrible age to have that happen to her."

Loudon lived through a similar Annie crisis at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, where the original show debuted 20 years ago when the original actress chosen to play the lead was let go and McArdle was promoted from the chorus.

She told Playbill On-Line, "That wasn't quite the same because it was done in rehearsals. We hadn't gone anywhere yet. The little girl was wonderful but she really grew up. The Pacitti thing wouldn't have been so bad if they'd made the switch earlier, when the show was really on the road. Why did it take so long for them (the producers) to find out they weren't pleased? They've been doing this for months."

Annie played March 26-Oct. 19, 1997 at the Martin Beck Theatre and then toured for well over a year.