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Dick Boyd Found the Role of His Life, As Scrooge, in the Omaha Community Playhouse Production of the Charles Dickens Classic ‘A Christmas Carol’

December 24, 2011 3 comments

As hometown traditions and staples go, the Omaha Community Playhouse musical production of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol is a must see for lots of folks, and not just here either because the original production designed by Charles Jones tours nationwide courtesy the Nebraska Theatre Caravan company.  This has been going on for two generations and I have to admit I’ve never bothered to catch the show.  The closest I came was watching part of a rehearsal for the following profile I wrote about Dick Boyd, the man who portrayed Scrooge in the production for decades.  He was still very much the voice and face of Scrooge here when I did the piece, but it wasn’t long after the story appeared that he announced his retirement from this role of a lifetime.  I hope my article didn’t in some way hasten his abandoning the part he’d become so strongly identified with.  As the story reveals, Boyd enjoys a very full life outside the Scrooge persona, which is of course far removed from his real demeanor.

 

Dick Boyd as Scrooge in 2005, ©photo by Mikki K. Harris, USA TODAY

 

 

 

Dick Boyd Found the Role of His Life, As Scrooge, in the Omaha Community Playhouse Production of the Charles Dickens Classic ‘A Christmas Carol’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

For generations of audiences Charles Dickens’ perennial classic tale A Christmas Carol has come to represent the transforming power of the Yuletide season. When the story begins, its lonely, tightfisted, bitter old protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, tyrannically administers to his cold, spare counting-house, running roughshod over cowed clerks, denying them the comfort of coal-fueled fires or even the courtesy of retiring early to be with their families on Christmas Eve. Only the plight of sweet Bob Cratchit’s crippled son, Tiny Tim, seems to move him. Otherwise, the craggy Scrooge dismisses the holiday and its celebrants with his trademark “Bah-humbug!

But then, in a series of apparitions, ghostly visitors reveal to him the wayward, misspent path of his life. By the end, the stingy skinflint repents, expressing regret for hardening his heart and for coveting monetary gain over cultivating mortal kindness. Redeemed, Scrooge embraces life again, opening his coffers and rejoining the human race with renewed vigor. His being born again proves it’s never too late to change but also serves as a cautionary tale that the pursuit of material wealth can lead to ruinous end. So embedded is Scrooge in the popular culture that mentioning the name elicits an image of cold-hearted, penny-pinching avarice. The word long ago entered the lexicon as the embodiment of a “mean-spirited miser” — precisely how the American Heritage Dictionary defines it.

All of which brings us to Dick Boyd, the very unScrooge-like fellow who’s been portraying Ebenezer for 28 years now in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s candy-coated production of A Christmas Carol, a spectacular that’s become a holiday staple for generations of area families. The play runs now through December 21.

A veteran actor on area stages for many decades, Boyd, who along with his wife and sometime acting partner Miriam, are longtime Council Bluffs residents, has made the part his own. He’s played Scrooge in each of the nearly 700 main stage Carol productions performed since former Playhouse director Charles Jones first adapted the story and staged it in 1976. In all that time, covering all those shows, the trouper, a longtime educator in Nebraska and Iowa public schools, has never missed a single performance. When he launched the role he was a 53-year-old English instructor. Now a robust 81, he’s long retired from teaching and a grandpa many times over. In what is surely one of the longest-running theater engagements an actor’s ever had, anywhere, Boyd swears he never tires of the role.

“No, never, certainly not, or I wouldn’t be doing it 28 years,” he says in his basso profundo voice. “It’s a joy. There’s a lot of aspects that make it a joy. The people involved are probably some of the greatest people you’ll ever associate with and every year you get a few fresh new faces in there. Everybody brings something new to each part every year. There’s always different reactions, so it never gets stale.”

Back in 2000 rumors circulated he was wanting out of the role, but he says that was unfounded. “I don’t know who started that, but people seem to be surprised I’m still at it. People have been asking me about it. But as I told Carl,” he says, referring to Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck, “any time you get tired of me, let me know. I’ll go as long as I’m able.”

Besides being a richly-contoured part that allows Boyd to play a wide gamut of emotions before packed houses every night, there’s the side benefit of being rejuvenated by the character’s spiritual rebirth. “It’s the ultimate experience every night for me. Very few people get redeemed 20 or 30 times in a Christmas season,” he says, meaning the approximate number of times he plays the role each year. He feels it’s this quality of redemption that makes the Dickens story such an enduring classic and one retold over and over again in print and film and on radio, television and stage. “I just think people enjoy the spirit of the thing more than anything. They just really like the idea of somebody being renewed.”

Boyd’s association with the story goes back a long time, all the way to his childhood in Nebraska City, Neb. “As for the story itself, I’ve been involved with it ever since I can remember. I’ve always read the story…I always find something new in it. In the good old days of radio Lionel Barrymore did his annual interpretation (of Scrooge). We were always gathered around our old Majestic waiting for that to come on.” Reading the tale and playing the role as long as he has, Boyd’s developed a keen understanding of Scrooge, a symbolic figure he believes is too easily caricatured but one he finds all too human. “I, of course, have changed my opinion of Scrooge over these 70-80 years. Well, he’s a hard-nosed and flinty miser, but I’ve come to realize Scrooge is no different than the rest of us. He has his foibles and his protective devices he uses. His protective device is he simply withdraws from the people that have given him trouble and hurt him, to more of an extreme than most of us, but still, in all, he’s just a human being under all of it.”

In true Dickensian fashion, Scrooge’s coming of age reads tragic. “He’s taken back to his childhood, which shows he was kind of a cast-off,” Boyd says. “He apparently lost his mother at an early date and his little sister, whom he adored, died off in her early marriage. There’s a couple scenes where he’s left by himself in this boarding school, kind of a shabby one at that, and has to spend his Christmas alone and rely on himself. So, in his early youth a lot of things were taken away from him and not much was given to him. And, so, he got to the point where money and success were important things and relationships were kind of tentative. The money was something he could hold onto…the one thing he could grasp and keep without it fading away. His Scrooge behavior is all a defense mechanism to cover his hurt.”

After the spirits force him to confront everything he’s lost by virtue of his vindictiveness and to view the suffering his spendthrift ways might yet inflict on the Cratchits and their ailing son, Tim, Scrooge’s humanity surfaces, most poignantly in befriending the struggling family. “You see, his affinity to Tiny Tim is that they’re both cripples, really,” Boyd says. “I mean, he’s an emotional cripple and Tim is physically. They kind of mesh there.” It is the shock of recognition that turns Scrooge around. “As soon as he’s shown why he’s doing these mean things, he starts snapping out of it,” notes Boyd. “I guess the popular concept today is you go see a psychiatrist and he talks you through these past (traumatic) experiences, where Dickens uses the device of these ghosts.”

 Dick Boyd with Mary Peckham, 1977

 

 

 

Still, the figure of Scrooge has become so identified with the image of an unfeeling tightwad that Boyd acknowledges “it’s kind of hard” to make him a real flesh-and-blood man rather than a stereotype. “After having done this role for so long I always ask Carl (Beck) to make sure that we’re not getting into any cardboard type of characterization. I know that we overblow the part a little bit. Of course, on the stage, you have to do that to get it across, but we try to steer clear of too much of that aspect. Hopefully, it’s a human portrayal.”

Touchingly human it is. When the part calls for it, Boyd dominates the proceedings with his early rendering of Scrooge as the mean, willful, narrow-minded old cuss. He groans, grouches, growls and grumbles with the best of them. But as Scrooge’s gaunt facade crumbles in the face of the cruelty he glimpses from his past, present and future, Boyd is appropriately nostalgic, afraid, exasperated and remorseful. At Scrooge’s most vulnerable, when viewing the wreckage of his life, Boyd essays a deeply wounded, apologetic soul.

The actor’s own bigger-than-life presence makes Scrooge’s fall and subsequent rise all the more telling. Boyd is a great lion of a man — from his mane of silver-gray hair to his impressive stature to his sonorous voice to his courtly manner, he carries himself with a certain majesty that only magnifies Scrooge’s callousness, making him seem smaller in the process, and that later elevates the character’s kindness, making it seem grander in comparison.

To his credit, Boyd avoids a cliched performance. Not by accident either. Rehearsals for A Christmas Carol began October 19 and ran through November 20 and during this stretch Boyd worked on both the broad strokes and fine nuances of his performance. In a mid-November rehearsal, he showed remarkable range in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Past has him revisit his youth as an apprentice under dear old Fezziwig, who celebrated Christmas by treating all his friends, loved ones and employees to a big party. Face to face with the bright young Ebenezer, Boyd’s Scrooge acts overjoyed, as much by facial expression, gesture and carriage as by words, at the holiday merriment and warm human interaction he once indulged in. Forgetting he’s invisible, Scrooge joins the party, upset he cannot break through the bonds of time. When the ghost chides Fezziwig for his unrequited generosity, Scrooge defends his beloved old boss, practically sermonizing about how it’s better to give than to receive, before realizing he’s contradicting his own parsimonious ways.

 

 

 

When Scrooge looks at himself as the earnest young apprentice, he sees the promise for happiness he once held and that he foolishly squandered away in blind pursuit of wealth. He cannot bear it when young Ebenezer spurns the affections of a girl and the prospect of a happy life together for the toil of work and the tinkle of coin, desperately wishing he could reverse the lonely course his life took. Later, when it’s revealed what an object of derision he’s become to some and what a figure of melancholy he represents to others, Boyd expresses profound anguish in the contortions of his face, the collapse of his body and the caterwauling wail of his voice. Everything about him is heavy, slow, sad.

By the end, when a repentant Scrooge pledges in front of his own tombstone to reform — “I’ll be good from now on” — he’s a man reborn. His burden has been lifted. Everything about him seems lighter, brighter, bolder. This scene, along with the final one when he greets everybody with rousing wishes of “Merry Christmas,” are among the actor’s favorites.

Boyd, who makes a point of rereading Dickens’ original A Christmas Carol in preparation for the play, describes how his take on Scrooge has changed as his own experience has caught up with the character’s. “I like to think you get a little more understanding as you get older anyway,” he says. “You see some of the things underneath the outward appearances of people. I know more about Scrooge than I did 28 years ago. Quite a bit more about him.” For a long while, though, the actor didn’t suspect his characterization had altered from the start. “I thought I was pretty much the same as always until I looked at some tapes from past performances and saw there has been a little bit of growth over the years. I think I show more of a change from the earlier character to the redeemed character. I carry the last scene a little farther than I used to. I used to be within myself more and now I try to involve more of the other characters on stage…as many as I can get a hold of, and I think it shows a little more warmth than it used to.”

He credits Charles Jones, the man who originally adapted and staged the Dickens classic at the Playhouse, for emphasizing the warmth of the piece. “He saw all the joy that’s bound up in it and I think that’s really one of the reasons why this has become so successful around here,” Boyd says. “Nobody ever leaves that show feeling bad because he always gives them that lift.”

Something else Jones encouraged Boyd and his fellow actors in is developing back stories to anchor their characterizations in a context that provides motivation for their actions. Scrooge’s background is basically all there in the Dickens tale, but not so for supporting-peripheral characters, and it’s with these parts, Boyd says, that Jones made sure every actor, down to the last extra, developed a story that described, “Who are you, what are you doing, and why have you been doing it? It’s not just coming on the stage, it’s living the part,” is how Boyd explains it.

He says the production has not changed appreciably since Jones left the Playhouse in 1998. The approach still centers on making the drama as fresh and alive as any current event. That includes the authentic sets designed by set designer James Othuse. “One thing about James Othuse’s sets is that when you step on stage you feel like you’re in the place he’s trying to recreate. In other words, you feel like you’re on a street in Victorian London. James is probably a genius at this. Whenever you get the snow falling and the crowds moving and all the color with the shops in the background, it sets a mood.”

©photo by Mikki K. Harris, USA TODAY

 

 

 

Like any performer, Boyd gets a charge from the high energy the cast and crew and audience give off during performance nights. “You can’t explain it. It’s kind of an electricity you feel.” He says working with a new cast practically every year keeps him on his toes. “A lot of if depends on who you’re working with on stage. If you get some dullards in there, it kind of drags things down, but that’s the nice thing about this one — we never get any of those. Of course, the kids have boundless energy. They’re ready to go every night. I guess we oldsters kind of feed off of that. I have a new Cratchit this year and a new Tiny Tim. Everybody has a little different approach to it and then of course you have to react to that.” As for audience reactions, he says, “It’s a horrible feeling if they’re not with you, I’ll guarantee you. You get feedback from them. It’s a give and take situation. If your audience is good, well, you may not be so good, but you act a little harder.”

Audiences anticipate his bellicose bellowing of that most signature Scrooge line, “Bah-humbug,” and Boyd knows it, so he plays to their expectations. “I listen to the audience.” he says. “It always gets kind of a snicker the first time it comes out. You can pretty much gauge if you’ve done it right.” He suspects that during hearing impaired performances the signer assigned to shadowing him on stage may “sign something other than bah-humbug,” perhaps an expletive “you wouldn’t exactly repeat in public, because the audience sure gets a snicker out of it.”

As closely identified as Boyd is with Scrooge, including being recognized on the street, the part hardly defines his performing life. His stage credits are impressive. He even has an award named after him at the Playhouse, whose most prestigious acting honor, the Fonda/McGuire Award, he’s won. Two of his favorite roles came as noble Atticus Finch in the Chanticleer Theater’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird and as curmudgeon Norman Thayer, opposite the legendary Mary Peckham, in On Golden Pond. He recently collaborated again with Charles Jones in a Grande Olde Players staging of The Three Penny Opera. Boyd and his wife of 53 years, Miriam, who appears with him in Carol, have been active members of the St. John Lutheran Church (Council Bluffs) choir and the Omaha Symphonic Chorus.

Although acting’s been an avocation, not a livelihood, it’s filled a large portion of his life. His performing days date back to high school in Nebraska City, where music became an early passion. After two years at Scottsbluff Junior College his university studies were interrupted by a three-and-half-year hitch in the Army signal corps that took him to the South Pacific during World War II. Upon returning stateside, he studied music and drama at Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Neb. Already possessing a fine bass voice, he sang in the school’s touring a cappella choir, and it was on one tour that he fell for fellow choir member and future wife Miriam, whose father was the then-president of Midland. He eventually earned an education degree and spent the next few years teaching and serving as a school superintendent in Shelby and Ceresco, Neb. Miriam also became a teacher.

It was in Shelby, in the early ‘60s, where Boyd first got greasepaint fever. The late artist Terence Duren recruited him to play the lead, opposite Miriam, in the Shelby community theater production ofDirty Work at the Crossroads. “I was the hero and she was the heroine,” Boyd recalls. A few years later, after moving their growing family to Council Bluffs, the Boyds, at Miriam’s urging, landed chorus parts in a Playhouse staging of Kiss Me Kate. “We went on from there and did quite a number of shows,” he says, encouraged by Omaha’s then leading arts mavens, the Levines. Joe Levine was the Omaha Symphony director and his wife Mary, a musician and theater patron. The Boyds also performed with the Omaha opera company. When the couple’s four children were quite young, they often accompanied their parents to the theater and concert hall, playing backstage. “Oh, they had a ball,” Boyd says. Three of their adult offspring have worked in theater, one on the technical end, another as a music director and a third as an opera singer.

By the time he went up for the coveted role of Scrooge in 1976, he figured he had no shot at it. After all, his stiff competition included accomplished actor and former vaudevillian Bill Bailey. When, to his surprise, Boyd bagged the flamboyant part, he never imagined he’d still be at it. So, is there any downside to being Scrooge? Besides a danger of “letting a little Scrooge creep into my other acting, no, none. It’s a joy,” he says. Any worries about typecasting? “Bah-humbug!”

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.

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 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.”

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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