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.
©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 on the right
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.”
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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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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