Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy McGuire’

Show goes on at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their start

August 4, 2010 1 comment

Cropped screenshot of Henry Fonda from the fil...

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I wrote this New Horizons story during the 75th anniversary season of the Omaha Community Playhouse, a not so ordinary community theater where stage and film legends Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire both got their start in acting.  The Playhouse is a genuine institution in my hometown. It’s rich history is interesting enough, but the theater’s success over all these years  is the passion of the people who make its productions possible.  That love of theater is the same today as it was decades ago, only the names and faces, casts and crews, most all volunteers, have changed.  After a rocky couple years, the Playhouse has regained its bearings and the tradition, just like the old theater credo about the show going on, continues.


Show goes an at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their start

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons


For 75 years now, just about anyone with a bit of ham in them has been afforded the chance to trod the boards or rig the lights or erect the sets at the largest community theater in America — the Omaha Community Playhouse. Because it is first and foremost a volunteer theater, where no professionals need apply, countless people, from all walks of life, have left their 9-to-5 jobs behind at the door for its magical world of greasepaint. For a chance to go on with the show. And for the chance to launch a Broadway or Hollywood career, as some Playhouse alums have done, most notably Nebraska natives Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire.

On April 7, another opening night found an electric current running through the crowd, cast and crew for The Last Night of Ballyhoo, a bittersweet comedy. No matter what the show, it never gets old, this thrilling adventure in live performance. There is a palpable excitement among the playmakers, whose craft brings a make-believe world to life, and among audience members, who willingly surrender to the spell the players cast. Then there’s the unpredictability of live theater, where anything is liable to occur. Only the night before, a mechanical wagon smashed into wooden flats that did not fly out in time and, amid the sound of splintering wood, everything came to a screeching halt.

“No matter how many plays you’ve done, it’s absolutely a live experience and anything can happen. You never get too smug because you’re always perfectly capable of having your pants pulled down around your ankles. It’s truly putting yourself out on a limb,” Playhouse Artistic Director Carl Beck said. “And being a community theater we have varying degrees of experience. It runs the gamut from veteran actors and actresses to some doing their very first show.”

Adding to the charm is the fact just plain folks — friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers — are the ones putting on the show as performers or technicians.

With the main stage auditorium still empty that April night, the crew trussed-up the Ballyhoo set while lead actor Jeffrey Taxman paced-off nervous energy with his character’s (Uncle Adolph) ever-present stogie in his mouth. Backstage, director Judy Hart encouraged her players to “break a leg.” The show, opening in mere minutes, was out of her hands by then. According to Beck, at that late stage the director, any director, is “the most useless person in the world. There’s absolutely nothing you can do by the time opening night rolls around, except stay out of the way and keep your fingers crossed.”

In a dressing room, four female cast members animatedly chattered while applying makeup, adjusting wigs and squeezing into costumes. A stagehand knocked at the door to ask, “Hey, how’s it going?” and the actresses replied, “Just fine, honey,” mimicking the southern Belles they portray. Even as an overhead voice announced, “Ten minutes to the top of Act One,” the girls of Ballyhoo continued nonchalantly getting ready for the curtain rising on this opening night, only their steady jabbering betraying their butterflies.

Out in the lobby, arriving theatergoers buzzed with anticipation. Among them was Omahan Lisa Jensen and her family. For Jensen, the appeal of live theater is “the excitement of seeing real people up there portraying a show, a story, a song. You get a different interaction than you feel watching a movie or a TV program. You’re clapping for people who are up there performing for you, and that’s exciting. And I think you get a little different excitement on opening night you don’t get as the play progresses. The actors are more breathless, the jitters more pronounced.”

As the near-capacity crowd filed in the auditorium and settled in their seats, the sound of eager voices rippled throughout. A darkened set, meant to represent a richly-appointed Southern parlor, only hinted at what lay ahead. Then, as the lights dimmed, a hush fell over the theater and the stage was illuminated by the glare of spots and warmed by the spark of actors breathing dramatic life into a space that only moments before was cold, static, dead. For the the next two-and-half hours 400 people suspended their sense of disbelief at the unfolding story before their eyes. As in all good theater, a visceral exchange occurred between stage and spectator, until only the play became the thing. Until the lines between fantasy and reality blurred. Another show begun. Another journey into imagination joined.

Whimsy alone is not enough to make a theater succeed. It also takes guts, vision, labor, love and money. With that kind of dogged spirit behind it, the Playhouse has enjoyed 75 uninterrupted performance seasons — weathering wars, a depression, a tornado and changing times along the way. This spirit of “the show must go on” has been translated into unparalleled support for the theater, which boasts a season membership base of 9,800, a volunteer corps of 2,000 to 4,000 and a large, plush physical plant including two theaters, many rehearsal halls and bustling costume and scenic shops (The theater is unique among community theaters in building its own own costumes and sets rather than renting them.).

Former Playhouse executive director and artistic director Charles Jones, who is credited with growing the theater into the nation’s largest, said, “A strength of the Playhouse has been that people have cared so much about it, and when people really care about something it’s bound to flourish. A secret to the Playhouse’s success has been its professional staff and  volunteer brigade. It has also been fortunate to have a wonderful board of directors who have always enjoyed a marvelous rapport with staff and volunteers.”

What accounts for the community’s deep embrace of the theater? Longtime volunteer Florence Young, who appeared in the very first play there in 1925, said, “There’s a feeling that it is OUR theater, and that makes it seem very close to us and very special to us. That we’re really a part of it. We love it.” She said community support for it mirrors the support Omahans show the Henry Doorly Zoo and the College World Series. “We really get behind things in Omaha. We don’t do things half-way. People really pitch-in, and that’s been the story of the Playhouse…of so many people contributing to it. One person’s enthusiasm for it draws another person to it, and they become enthused too. It’s an inspiration.”

Perhaps Henry Fonda summed it up best when he said once, “The Omaha Community Playhouse isn’t a mere building. It’s the spirit that has been put into the Playhouse by thousands of volunteers over the past many years.”

And true to its grassroots community origins, the theater’s artistic staff work hand-in-hand with amateur casts and crews to achieve productions of professional caliber. “Prior to most people’s first visit to the Playhouse they have certain expectations of what a community theater will be — a group of amateurs getting together to do a show of not so high caliber quality — but after they see the work of the Playhouse their perceptions of community theater are generally completely altered. It is the mission of the Playhouse to bring the quality of performances and production values to their highest possible end,” Beck said. Over the years its work has shined outside Omaha as select casts have participated in regional, national and international (Bulgaria and the former Soviet Union) theater festivals and through annual touring shows of its A Christmas Carol production.

The Playhouse presents 10 to 12 diverse productions each season. There is no sure formula for finding the right mix of plays that will please young, old, conservative and adventurous theatergoers alike. Said Beck, “There are people who have been members of the Playhouse for 20 and 30 and 40 years. These same people will support you but will also let you know very quickly when artistically you’re falling short. You see it directly in box office and membership sales. As a staff we try to live up to the heritage and continuity of the Playhouse by finding a balance of plays that challenge both the audience and the performer and that live up to the mission of a community theater, which is a varied and diverse season.”

The Playhouse also has an educational component via theater arts classes and workshops for all ages. It also offers an accredited apprenticeship program in technical theater. As part of an educational outreach effort to make theater available to everyone in the state the Playhouse formed a professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theater Caravan, in 1976. Since then the Caravan has taken to the road each year performing plays in smaller communities across Nebraska, Iowa and the greater Midwest. The Caravan annually mounts three productions of A Christmas Carol for audiences coast to coast. The Caravan, which recruits performers and technicians at regional auditions, has become an internal talent pool for the Playhouse. Beck, a Caravan veteran himself, said, “We have at least a dozen persons on staff who began as Caravan personnel. Together, we bring a professional strength and continuity to this community theater that is exciting.”

From the first opening night in 1925, when The Enchanted Cottage premiered, to this 75th anniversary season’s finale production of My Fair Lady, closing June 18, thousands of volunteers have supported the theater through long rehearsal hours, generous contribution dollars and annual season memberships. The story of the Playhouse is the story of the arts in Omaha. Of visionary figures (including early Playhouse stalwart Dorothy Brando, the mother of Marlon) pursuing a dream. Of a community pitching-in to realize that dream. Of supporters not letting hurdles stand in the way of grand designs. With The Roaring Twenties in full swing, the idea of creating a playhouse in Omaha was a natural. The city was fast transitioning from a frontier outpost into an urban center where all the amenities of modern life could be enjoyed. Movie and vaudeville theaters flourished. Why not a playhouse then? A group of civic and arts-minded citizens took up the challenge. By the fall of 1924 a board of directors was elected and by the following spring the Playhouse, aided by proceeds from fundraising events, was incorporated — with $10 shares issued to hundreds of stockholders. Now, it only needed a performing space.

A temporary home was found in the Cooper Dance Studio at 40th and Farnam. It was there The Enchanted Cottage, with Dorothy Brando and Jayne Fonda (a sister of Henry’s) in the cast, was performed. Within months a shy, gangly young man named Henry Fonda made his stage debut there, and, well, the rest is history. The Cooper remained the Playhouse’s home for two and a half seasons but when it was unceremoniously converted into a chicken restaurant in 1928, the theater finished its third season at the Benson High School Auditorium. In need of new quarters, the board set their sights on five nearby lots purchased a few years earlier from Sarah Joslyn, the widow of printing-publishing magnate George Joslyn. The story goes the lots, on the corner of 40th and Davenport, served as pasture land for Dame Joslyn’s cow. The fertile ground proved a rich spot for the new Playhouse, erected in only 28 days, to grow. The theater, variously described as “an old barn” and “an ungainly thing,” was meant to be a temporary facility but instead saw service for 31 years. Casts and crews made do with the structure’s shortcomings, including backstage space so cramped actors exiting stage left had to dash outside, exposed to the elements, to enter stage right.

By the end of World War II the theater was badly in need of a new and larger home. Enter Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire. The two stars, who performed together in the theater’s 1931 production of A Kiss for Cinderella, returned in 1955 for benefit performances of The Country Girl (co-starring Henry’s daughter, Jane) at the Music Hall to kick-off a capital fund drive. Within four years the Playhouse had opened at its present mid-town 69th and Cass Street site. Henry Fonda, who served on the Playhouse advisory board until his 1982 death, played an active role in visioning the theater’s future growth and ensuring its legacy. By the early 1960s, his son Peter also found his way on stage at the Playhouse. Besides the Fondas and McGuire, scores of Playhouse alumni have gone on to significant careers in theater, film and television, including actor Jim Millhollin and cabaret performer Julie Wilson. Even famed artist Grant Wood worked there — as a set designer. The place is still turning out talent. “We have a multitude of people out there doing exceedingly well. Last spring, for example, we had four former Playhouse or Caravan performers appearing in separate productions on Broadway,” Beck said.

A defining moment for the theater came in May of 1975, when a killer tornado ripped the roof off the building, blew -out the windows and doors and scattered costumes and props to the winds. A Rebuild the Playhouse campaign fund drive promptly began and by that fall the structure was repaired and a lavish 50th anniversary production, The Golden Follies, dazzled audiences. According to Charles Jones, the disaster made the community realize how much they valued the Playhouse and how fragile its continued existence was without their support, and people’s quick and generous response to its plight was the springboard for a new era of dramatic growth — in terms of memberships, contributions and additions.

Major renovations and expansions in the mid-1980s saw the refurbishing of the plush lobby, the addition of a second, more intimate, performing space (the Howard Drew Theater) and the creation of a newer and bigger scene shop. Later improvements have included a state of the art computerized lighting console. But now, some 15 years later, the Playhouse has once again outgrown its digs and is pursuing a new, grander vision: namely, to become a regional theater on par with the fabled Guthrie.

To bring that ambitious vision to life the theater is embarking on an $11 million dollar fund drive to support a new renovation project and to supplement its endowment. To stage today’s large-scale musicals, plans call for enlarging the main stage proscenium to allow for soaring two-story sets. To update the physical plant, old heating and cooling systems are to be replaced. To house the growing staff, who share quarters now, more office space is on the drawing board. To meet the growing demand for acting, dancing, singing classes, additional classrooms are in the works.

Big dreams indeed. Then again, the world of theater is all about making dreams come true. Will the Playhouse meet these lofty goals? Only time will tell, but if longtime supporter Dee Owen’s recent donation of the former Chermot Ballroom building (to provide more storage space for the theater’s $3 million worth of costumes) to the Playhouse is any indication, than Omahans will once again heed the call.

Just ask season subscribers Steve and Cindy Hutchinson of Omaha. According to Cindy, she and her husband value the Playhouse for the “consistent high quality of its marvelous productions” and “the continuity” it offers from year to year. Steve said they feel they have “an investment” in the Playhouse: “Because it’s a community playhouse the community stars in it. It’s a real expression of how much people here appreciate the arts.” Season subscriber Lisa Jensen of Omaha added, “It’s a little piece of Omaha culture at its best, and something we should all take advantage of.”

Bravo, Omaha. Now, let’s go on with the show.

Charles Jones: Looking Homeward

August 3, 2010 Leave a comment


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One of my favorite pieces from the past decade is this New Horizons profile of the late Charles Jones, a theater director who made quite an impression on the Omaha Community Playhouse and the city. Jones was in the autumn of his life when I met him, confined to a wheelchair as the result of a stroke, but his mind and spirit were still impetuous, his personality still charming.  He was no longer directing shows at the Playhouse, the historic theater where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their acting starts and where he turned his adaptation of A Christmas Carol into a phenomenon. Rather, he was working at small theaters and loving every minute of it because he was getting to work on things dear to his heart.  A Southerner through and through, Jones was a sweet gentleman.  His abiding warm memories and piquant descriptions of his childhood Southern home and haunts made me want to turn the story into a nostalgic, vivid , and by-turns irreverent remembrance of things past , sort of in the vein of Truman Capote or Flannery O’Connor.


Charles Jones: Looking Homeward

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons


Former Omaha Community Playhouse director Charles Jones, a rake and raconteur of giant appetites, traces his deeply inquisitive nature to a childhood memory. Picture a Christmas-decorated parlor, circa 1941, at the Columbus, Ga. homestead of his maternal grandmother, Stella “Dovey” Trussell, a matriarchal Belle with an artistic bent. Charlie Jim peers over the edge of a table on tip-toes, a chubby 3-year-old teetering with wide-eyed wonder at his grammy’s handmade snow scene.

“Somehow, I think that memory of peeking over the edge of that big table to see what grandmother Trussell had done has influenced my whole life. I don’t know exactly how to explain that, except I’ve always been curious about things,” Jones said in his lilting native Georgia accent in an interview at the art-decorated home he shares with his wife Eleanor. From his warm wood-paneled den, the 61-year-old Jones, confined to a wheelchair since suffering a massive stroke in 1991, thinks a lot about the past these days. His nostalgia is due not to inactivity — he is busy writing, directing and volunteering — but to the richness of growing-up years filled with individuals and incidents as eccentric as any in a Southern Gothic novel.

His own first novel, The Sweet Breath of Cows, which he is writing with his younger sister Bunny (June), examines a way of life peculiar to the Deep South. One where the pious and profane, coarse and quaint, co-exist. Of his Southernism, he said, “I am so much a part of it. I am so much a product of the people” Yet, for one so steeped in the South, Jones feels at home in Nebraska. “There’s a wonderful attitude here that lets people live their lives.” His book charts gritty times on the family dairy farm and notorious exploits of a black sheep uncle, Louie, who left home to make his way in Prohibition-era Phenix City. Ala., then a wide-open town. “Here was a place that deliberately tried to create itself in the image of the devil. They loved the idea they were wicked. They took a certain bizarre pride in being the Sin City of America and in being able to maneuver around all the laws of the world. Bodies of soldiers were found every day floating in the Chattahoochee River. It was almost past belief a Southern town could have been like this, but my historical research has proven it true,” Jones said.

Louie’s equally improbable personal tale is true. Jones swears it. It seems after leaving home Louie was befriended by both a Sin City madam and a mother superior whose brothel and convent, respectively, did business in adjoining antebellum mansions. For Jones, “the juxtaposition of those sisters of love working next door to each other is amazing, and much of what the novel is about is the juxtaposition of life. I’m intrigued by the question, Is making love making God? It fascinates me.”

Charles Jones, center


While not all his relations were as colorful as Louie (a paratrooper in war and  paramour in civilian life) Jones has only to look homeward to find ample inspiration for his work. Nearby Ft. Benning gave him a front row seat for the unfolding drama of the nation’s war mobilization. “Ft. Benning affected our lives from the time I was a child,” he said. “Columbus was only 38,000 people when the Second World War began. Then Benning was made the largest infantry training base and parachute school and suddenly there were 100,000 men there. It just mushroomed. And, of course, the soldiers’ families would come through too. So the war was very much a presence with us. And the fact Franklin Roosevelt had his Little White House retreat in Warm Springs, only 30 miles from our home, made his death, for us and for a lot of Georgians, an extremely personal experience.”

The Jones home, like many in the area, put-up military boarders during the conflict. Jones did his own part for the war effort when he used his gregarious verve to win a city-wide competition selling war bonds, earning the youngster a live on-air appearance on a local radio station. “Of course, I was so puffed-up, I was like a tiny little peacock just about to bust,” he said.

It was not his first brush with performing, however. From the time he could talk, he displayed an outgoing nature and impressive oratorical skills. He recalls standing on the steps of his family’s Baptist church and, like a preacher, greeting every churchgoer by name. He began exhibiting a vivid imagination at his paternal grandparents dairy farm in Smith Station, Ala., where he and his aunt Alice, only a few years his senior, devised and enacted 10-gallon plays, so named because the sketches lasted as long as it took for the cows’ milk to fill 10-gallon cans. Soon, nephew and aunt, more like brother and sister, began polishing their plays and performing them, complete with makeup, costumes, sets, outside the big farm house on Saturday nights. Their audiences, sprawled on the front porch or on the lawn, were mostly comprised of sympathetic kin but also included black tenant farming families whom the young thespians coaxed into attending. The plays became a family ritual for years. By all accounts, Charlie Jim (his legal name) was a big brash boy with a booming voice and captivating stage presence.

Far from genteel, Jones insists his family was a “dirt poor” lot that, if not as common as the folks in God’s Little Acre, were close cousins. “Our lives as children were visceral. We lived in a bare-footed world with mules and horses and manure. It was not up-town. It was not clean and nice.” But they knew how to have a good time. Weekends at the farm found the clan entertaining homesick GIs at picnics and parties full of Southern hospitality. “Many of the soldiers were farm kids who, stuck way out in the boonies, missed home,” he said. “Coming to Smith Station reminded them of home. It was very emotional for some of them. They’d even queue up to milk cows.”

Sunday dinners brought relations from all around. A preacher was often a feted guest but, man of God or not, he was subject to the same earthy treatment as everyone else. Jones explained: “One Sunday we had a preacher who was going on and on and on and just blessing everything. Finally, my little sister Julia, who was 2 at the time, said, ‘Oh, for Chris sakes, amen,’ and grabbed a chicken leg. Now, my aunts and uncles were the types who had a wonderful sense of humor and so they were just falling on the floor with laughter. And I’m sure Alice and I were laughing too. But my grandmother Jones was probably trying to spank all of us at one time.”

Down home religion offered Jones more grist for the mill. His mother’s family were ardent Methodists and his father’s devout Baptists. Jones found the country services at Smith Station Baptist Church “entertaining,” especially with cousin Samuel Jones present. “Sam was a brilliant man but became a religious fanatic at one time — growing this long beard — and as he took literally the Bible admonition for women to hold their tongues silent Sam would stomp out –clomp, clomp, clomp — in these big old farm boots whenever a woman stood up to testify. People thought his behavior stupid, but it was hysterical to me.”

Omaha Community Playhouse. Photo by poster in ...

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He credits his family’s keen appreciation for the absurd for why he found “terribly funny” what others found incredulous. “I suppose it’s because my daddy and grand daddy had a real sense of theater in life. They were entertained by things, and so was I.” His passion for drama was fed whenever his father, Harry Jones, a packing house laborer turned food services magnate, returned from business trips to Chicago or New York and recounted the big stage shows he’d seen. For a boy in Columbus it was a link to far-off places and glamorous goings-on. “Daddy would come back from every trip and describe whatever play he had seen. He would act it out for me. Oh, the magic and imagination of it.”

His imagination was further fired by movies and books and by a local librarian, Miss Loretta Chapel, “a beautiful little bird of a woman” who read stories to he and his school chums. “Miss Loretta would sit in a huge casement window with us children at her feet and she would read, and as she read everything came totally to life. I saw it all acted out in my mind’s eye. It was just amazing. We worshiped her.”

Mad about make-believe, Charlie Jim knew the world of greasepaint was for him long before seeing his first legitimate play — a touring production of Kiss Me Kate — at age 13. He “loved” performing in his first school production, although he claims he was “dreadful.” By 16 he was a bright overweight lad ill at ease among his peers and struggling at school. Then, as if by fate, he was selected with 13 other “misfits” to complete his high school education in an experimental program at Emory University in Atlanta. There, under the tutelage of PhDs determined to teach students in an innovative way, new horizons opened for him and he flourished.

“Our textbooks were the original works of the Greek and Roman playwrights and philosophers. I was just wild about them. Our studies covered the Hebrew tradition, the Middle Ages, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard and so on. What these professors had in mind was to give us the heritage of Western thought and literature and civilization. It was really demanding and interesting. I didn’t appreciate it then but I realize now I had an extraordinary opportunity to read a body of literature that has stayed with me. It was very important to my life.”

Jones said something he read then motivated him to take a big bite out of life: “It was Plato’s statement about cave people living in a shadow world and never having the strength and courage to go through that threshold into the light — into the real world. I was so devastated by that. I thought, ‘That’s not what my life is going to be. I’m not going to allow myself to sit in a cave and not participate. I am going to go out there and try things.’ And I have. I’ve really been a participant.” His tendency to overindulge led to a lifelong battle with obesity, which he blames for the stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side. It’s a battle he’s lately won.

It was at La Grange College, a small Methodist school in La Grange, Ga., he devoted himself body and soul to the theater. He feels indebted to its “fabulous tyrant” of a dramatic arts teacher — Miss Irene Arnett. “She had a strict moral code. To her, we were all sinners going straight to hell. But, man, could she teach Tennessee Williams. Carnality was something she really understood.” After graduating in 1960  Jones promptly landed an acting job in Kentucky, where he enjoyed “the most decadent summer of my life.” When not sowing his wild oats, he did some directing in Columbus before getting his big break as an Equity Actor with the prestigious Barter Theater of Virginia, whose famous alumni include Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Ned Beatty, whom Jones replaced.

At the Barter Jones found a mentor in its founder and director, Robert Porterfield. “Once you were inside the Barter family then Bob just looked after you and would do anything for you. Bob was a role model for me in leading the Omaha Community Playhouse,” Jones said.

When his Barter Theater tour ended Jones found himself back home — out of work. At the invitation of friends he attended a performance of Tea and Sympathy and was taken with “a beautiful red-haired woman on stage,” Eleanor Brodie, a University of Alabama theater major. He recalled, “She had on a tight turquoise dress with one shoulder bare. She was the most gorgeous and provocative thing I’d ever seen. I was absolutely wild to meet her and I went backstage feeling like the cock-of-the-walk.” When she promptly put him down a peg or two with her sardonic wit, he was even more smitten. He arranged meeting her again through one of her friends and the two married three months later. Partners in life for 38 years now, Eleanor and Charles have two grown sons, Jonathan and Geoffrey, and one grand-daughter, Kathryn.

Of Eleanor, Jones said, “We both made such a total commitment to one another. She has been the most important person in my life. She has pulled me through more things than you can imagine. She’s a fierce lady and our relationship has not always been peaches and cream, but she believes in me. I’m just so damn lucky.”

Like many young actors the pair set their sights on New York, investing everything for their Big Apple fling. Jones found work, even understudying Zero Mostel on Broadway, but after three months of scraping by and enduring rejections he and Eleanor did some soul searching and decided their hearts were back home. “I was a big showy actor, but not nearly as good as many others. It was not ever going to be satisfactory,” he said. “We wanted to go home where we would have a chance to use our very expensive educations as teachers and theater directors. Fortunately, my hometown gave us the opportunity to do that.” He oversaw the restoration and reopening of the historic Springer Opera House, now the state theater of Georgia.

His success as a theater director/manager there prompted the Omaha Community Playhouse to hire him away in 1974. He soon sparked a rebirth of the venerable facility, severely damaged in the May 1975 tornado, by raising funds for its repair and, later, for an ambitious expansion. He launched its professional touring wing — the Nebraska Theater Caravan. His sumptuous adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol became an annual tradition. His musical extravaganzas dazzled audiences. Season memberships soared. Through it all, he felt the support of his father, who lived to see him grow the Playhouse into the nation’s largest community theater.

Jones finds his thoughts drifting more and more to his late father. “I realize now he was my strongest supporter. He really was.” He fondly recalls the time his father broke into the slated-for-demolition Springer Opera House to plead its case to reporters. The father’s dramatic stunt worked and the theater was saved for the son to guide. One early memory of his father lingers still. It was a Sunday afternoon on the farm. The extended family had finished dinner. Four-year-old Charlie Jim and grandfather Jones were feeding long sugar cane stalks into a mule-drawn mill to be ground into pulp for molasses. Jones tells what happened next: “I shoved a stalk in too far and my right hand got stuck, and the grinder clipped off the ends of all the fingers. I bled like a stuck pig. I can remember the women screaming and even my grandfather panicking. But the one in control was my daddy. He picked me up and he ran with me. All the while, my uncles were running alongside my father, a rather small man, telling him I was too heavy for him to carry, but my daddy would not give me away. He was determined to get me to a doctor, and he did too.”

“That memory of my daddy not giving me away is very powerful and it’s affected my whole life,” a sobbing Jones said, holding up nubby, scarred fingertips. “I wish I could tell him, ‘Thank you.’”

Today, Jones is drawing more and more on his past for his work. Sweet and sour Southern memories abound in his novel as well as in the nostalgic Papa’s Angels, a musical play written by North Carolinian Collin Wilcox Paxton in collaboration with Jones. The play had its premiere last winter with the Grand Olde Players and will be reprised this year. Currently, he is directing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas for the Dundee Dinner Theater (it runs through May 6). Directing is still his passion: “I love putting the thing together. I love the process of rehearsing a play. That one-on-one with the cast and that working out how we’re going to do it is the fun for me,” he said. But directing is just one of many things he has immersed himself in since leaving the Playhouse due to health reasons in 1998. His work today includes serving on the board of directors for Theaters of the Midlands, a new non-profit corporation designed to support small community theaters in the area.

He is perhaps most excited working with Creighton University occupational therapy students to help them learn about stroke patients like himself. “If I have to endure this at least I can be purposeful by letting students work with me and ask me questions,” he said. “Maybe this will give them some knowledge they can’t get from a textbook and maybe that’s going to help somebody else who has this problem.” His ongoing post-stroke rehab includes aquatic therapy twice a week at Immanuel Rehabilitation Center, which honored him with its Victories Award for his dedication to “soar past limitations with determination, commitment and hope.” For a sensualist like Jones, any debilitation is a curse. Aside from the physical challenges he’s faced, including suffering severe falls and medical complications, his condition has extracted a heavy emotional toll. He credits Eleanor for his recovery. “She was just determined the stroke would not stop me, and it’s amazing how much creative work I’ve done since then.”

On his darkest days he recalls his father’s cheery nature. “He was the most optimistic person I’ve ever known and I feel blessed to have been born with his same optimism. I can be as low as a human being can get. I can think there’s no reason to go on living and then, it’s so incredible, I’ll wake up the next morning and feel, ‘Wow, let’s go.!’ I think one of the reasons I want to keep going is because I am so damn curious about things,” he said. “Part of my curiosity is to know how other people feel about life and what they have to deal with. Do we see things the same way? Do we feel things the same way? To me, that’s fascinating.”

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