One Grand Old Lady

By Ken Bradbury

It was the first time I’d been investigated by a secret committee. The Jacksonville Theatre Guild’s longtime and much esteemed director, Gene Laurent, had died, and I was the first director to take to the stage after his passing. The show was the musical, “Shenandoah”. However, word had reached the JTG board that “this new kid” didn’t direct like Gene. I won’t go into the details, but our styles were different. So it was several years later that I found that the Guild had appointed a committee to secretly sneak into the light booth at the (then) State Hospital, and spy on me to see if things were about to turn disastrous.

I guess I passed the test. Jay Jamison said we sold a lot of tickets, even after his comment, “Who in the hell is Ken Bradbury?” Believe me, it was the wonderful show and the cast who caused audience members to flock to the Sophie Leschin auditorium and not the young director.

Of course the genesis of the JTG predates Sophie’s place. Organized in 1973 under the name Summer Theatre ’76, the group took its current name in 1979 and staged productions at Nichols Park’s McGee-Spaulding Pavilion, the Veteran’s Kitchen at the State Hospital and in the dining room of the facility. But facts are boring.

What’s more interesting, and what has meant so much to the Jacksonville community, is the opportunity and the influence the JTG has provided to thousands of performers. A couple of years ago we sat a group of aging actors around a barroom table, turned on a microphone, and then asked them to regale us with stories of the Guild. Even our high capacity digital recorder was taxed to get it all down. Of course there were significant gaps in the tape as the group ordered more drinks.

Shooing the birds out of the theatre at Nichols Park before every performance . . . Luke Fry shoveling pigeon poop . . . finding a seat at the Vet’s Kitchen where the roof wasn’t leaking . . . Benjamin Franklin’s cot collapsing in the middle of 1776 . . . the residents of the JDC who would threaten to shoot us with their toothbrushes . . . Rich McCoy tossing his hotdog from the stage into the bell of Dave Zink’s tuba . . . Vern Fernandes blustering his way through “The Music Man” . . . Bob Large padding his parts . . . Sylvia Burke saying lines from the wrong play . . . my personal pleasure in demolishing a cast member’s cell phone backstage in “Man of La Mancha” . . . Henry Reynold’s doing the perfect doddering old man . . . actors in costume being mistaken as JDC patients . . . the angry lady in the audience who objected to Mary Magdalene being portrayed as a prostitute . . . the fellow who bought season tickets every year then slept through every show . . . the stream of actors who’ve fallen into the orchestra pit . . . Janet Long’s various tussles with prima donnas who insisted on dressing their own characters . . . costumes that came off when they should have stayed on . . . Sean Rose sewing a costume while onstage . . . Rob Shaffer’s unbelievable sets . . . David Shaffer’s unbelievable everything . . . Steve Varble making magic out of paint and cardboard . . . and the stories never seem to stop.

But of course the most lasting testament to the mark the JTG has left on our community has little to do with sets, costumes, and even performances, but to the difference the group has made in the lives of so many of us. I once had one of our area’s most successful coaches tell me, “Football made me a player, but theatre made me a coach.” The value of performing isn’t measured in Oscars and Tony Awards, but in the confidence that our community’s tradition of theatre has given to generations of folks of all ages. One of my former theatre students went to register for his college classes and his advisor saw that performing was a part of his résumé. The boy told me, “They automatically bumped me up to a higher level speech class. The guy said, ‘Anyone who’s been onstage has an advantage on the other students.’” The purpose of community is not to produce Hollywood actors, but to develop a citizenry confident in expressing itself, a community with an appreciation of the arts, and a place to become “community” in the finest sense.

The little girl who goes onstage to play the spider in “Charlotte’s Web” will never be terrified of getting up in front of people. The young man who takes his first step onstage as one of Oliver’s urchins will be able to face new challenges with a courage and confidence that can’t be taught by any school. The Jacksonville Theatre Guild has been one grand old lady, gently taking us by the hand and leading us to a better place. Yes, there’s sadness in the Guild’s passing, but our area is rife with opportunities to perform, and her secret had nothing to do with a building or a piece of scenery. What she started will continue as long as we support the arts.

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