Curtis wearing a necklace and smiling
Maria Curtis. Credit: Laura Morland

Maria Antonia Curtis, 91, a teacher of dance and languages, died of a stroke early in the morning of July 4 at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, in the presence of her beloved sons, Claude and Paul.

Maria was born on Dec. 16, 1931, in Padova (Padua), Italy, the only daughter of Cesare and Francesca Zavka Gallo. When she was 9, her father was promoted to Inspector of Gas Works for all of Italy, whereupon the family moved to Rome. In the 50-page memoir she published last year (in both Italian and English editions), Maria recalled the privations of WWII, where she would haul buckets of water from the Venetian lagoon to boil it down for salt. But most of her formative years involved shopping with her mother in the beautiful arched galleries of Padua, reveling in her precocity in Latin at her Roman middle school, and enjoying long vacations with family and friends in mountain and island resorts in Italy.

Maria graduated from university with a degree in Classics and eventually began working as a secretary in Anzio, where she met her husband, Wallis Curtis, a dashing American engineer sent by the Colgate-Palmolive company to build a new plant there.

Maria and Wallis Curtis holding a baby
Maria and Wallis Curtis with their youngest grandchild, Ana Victoria Curtis. Credit: Meredith Stout

After a long courtship, during which she spent a year teaching French at a finishing school in Gstaad (often enjoying impromptu concerts by Yehudi Menuhin, who lived nearby), Maria and Wallis were married in the Vatican on April 16, 1959. They spent the rest of their lives in Berkeley, where she reared their two sons, Claude and Paul, gave private lessons in Italian and French, and for many years organized a “Carnevale” where guests arrived in medieval costumes to enjoy a final celebration of the flesh before Lent.

As she wrote in her memoir: In Berkeley — where I had attended many courses of Gymnastics first, then of Modern, then of Classical Dance at the “Shawl-Anderson Studio” on Alcatraz Avenue —  in 1972, the moment to teach had arrived. In fact, I taught Ballet from that year until the advent of the Pandemic which exploded at the beginning of the year 2020. I had just started to teach the Ballet Spring Session of the year 2020, when, after the third lesson, on March 3rd, 2020, the Coronavirus put an end to my teaching of almost half a century. The Bellevue Club, where I was teaching, had closed down.

A longtime subscriber to the San Francisco Ballet, Maria was also a passionate cinephile and concert, museum, and theater-goer. For many years she was a subscriber to the Berkeley Rep and Aurora theaters, and remained a faithful supporter of Berkeley Chamber Performances at the Berkeley City Club.

Maria was a pillar of St. Mary Magdalen Parish; she attended Mass there daily for 63 years, serving as a Lector and also volunteering in various ministries, most notably creating a magnificent cornucopia for the church sanctuary nearly every Thanksgiving.

Curtis and six members of her family outside at a party with a set table behind them
Maria on her deck with her friends and family. Credit: Laura Morland

In addition to her sons and their wives, Claude and Marjorie Curtis (Greenfield, Massachusetts), and Paul and Sonia Curtis (El Sobrante), Maria is survived by her younger brother, Claudio (Montepulciano, Italy); her niece Lucia and great-niece Benedetta; another niece, Laura; and her sister-in-law, Barbara Curtis Lewis. Maria leaves behind her treasured grandchildren: Gillian (Joel) Dumont, Christopher Curtis, Andrea (Jonathan) McGeoghan; Julian, Martin, and Ana Victoria Curtis; and three great-grandchildren: Juliet and Nathaniel Dumont and Conrad McGeoghan. 

Maria was predeceased by her elder brother, Silvano; his son, Marco; and her adored husband of 50 years, Wallis Shumway Curtis.

A vigil will be held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 18, and her funeral Mass at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, July 19 — both at St. Mary Magdalen Church, 2001 Berryman St., Berkeley. Her burial will take place at St. Joseph’s Cemetery at 2 p.m.