Bernhardt column: The Stage and I

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 10, 2012

It was the spring of ’85, and as a Piedmont Players Board member, I had been asked to attend an arts workshop here in town.
As part of a small group session, a few of us were asked to come up with an answer to the question “Why do we participate in theater in Salisbury?”
While most of us fumbled around for answers that we were sure the group leader wanted to hear, like “because it enriches the cultural life of our community,” or “to offer members of our community the opportunity to express themselves artistically,” it was Karl Hales who cut through the pretense with the correct answer:
“Because we like being on stage.”
In all honesty, I do. That’s why I’m happy to live in a place that supports such a wonderful group like Piedmont Players.
My involvement doesn’t go back the entire fifty-plus years of their existence. Seventeen years of their history would go by before I would find my way onstage.
It was 1977, and I had just performed in a traveling church musical called “Come Together.” I sang lead and narrated the 40-minute program. It was our last night “on the road,” and I was about to meet a man who would change the course of my future.
Bob Greene had been a part of Piedmont Players since the early 60s. He grabbed my arm as we were saying our goodbyes to the congregation.
“Kent, I’m Bob Greene. Have you ever done any local theater?”
Bob had a way of cutting right to the chase.
He told me Piedmont Players was planning their first summer musical. It was to be the Rogers and Hammerstein classic “The King and I.”
“You’d be perfect for the doomed prince from Burma.”
I told him I’d certainly consider it, and asked when tryouts were. It turns out they were in late May, about the time I was to begin working fulltime in broadcasting.
I thanked him, reasonably sure I would never see him again. I didn’t, until the final night of tryouts when the phone rang at the radio station.
“Kent, it’s Bob Greene. Where are you?”
“Who is this again?”
“It’s Bob Greene. This is the final night of tryouts. Come over to Crystal Lounge now. You’re perfect for Lun Tha!”
Bob was not a man to trifle with. I got into my car, not really sure what I was doing, and drove to Catawba College.
I sat patiently in the crowded room, sang a little when they asked me to, and read part of the script. There were so many people in the group who clearly had vast theatrical experience. I would get this over with and go home.
Director Hubert Rolling stood to announce the cast. Panic put its cold hands around my throat and squeezed tightly when he announced my name…for the role of Lun Tha.
I was still living at home at the time, and my first challenge was breaking the news to my parents. “How in the world can you do a play when you have to get up at four each morning?” they wondered aloud.
I wondered the same thing. I was in way over my head. I thought of quitting, but only for a moment. That’s not the way out.
“What do you do in this play?” they asked.
“I’m the male love interest. I sing two songs and die.”
“You’re too corny to die onstage,” my sister kidded me. “Everyone will laugh.”
“I don’t die onstage,” I corrected her. “They just announce that I’ve been killed. I die in the green room while I’m drinking a Coke.”
At my first rehearsal, the costumer took one look at me and barked “Shave the mustache and get a tan! No one from Burma is that pasty white!”
Mental note: Hit Blue Waters Pool a few afternoons this week.
I grew to love this new experience, but opening night was one of the toughest nights of my life. By this time, I cared about the show and the cast, and I wanted to do my absolute best. Everything had to be perfect.
During my second song, I aimed for a climactic high note…and missed. My voice cracked right in the middle.
Salisbury Post editor George Raynor was in the audience that night. Raynor was not known for his gentle reviews. I was sure the next day’s headline would read, “NEWCOMER RUINS ‘KING AND I’ OPENING NIGHT WITH ONE BAD NOTE.”
To my great relief, Raynor simply said “Patsy Parnell and a newcomer, Kent Bernhardt, displayed particularly fine voices.” Whew!
As time went by, I slowly discovered the quality that would draw me back to future productions time and time again. The cast and crew became a second family to me. In fact, saying goodbye at the end of the production was the hardest part.
I developed friendships that have lasted for 35 years now. I met my best friend Mike Cline there, and I still perform regularly with my first leading lady, Patsy Parnell.
She gave me my first stage kiss. In fact, playing those romantic leads, I’ve been fortunate enough to kiss some of Salisbury’s most beautiful women right on that stage, many right in front of their husbands.
I no longer play those romantic leads. I play their fathers….soon, their grandfathers. One day, I’ll just be the old geezer who yells “They went thataway!” Then I’ll die in the green room.
But whether the role is large or small, I’m sure I’ll still get the same feeling of excitement every time that curtain goes up. Each night is a new experience, and each audience is totally different.
And every cast still gives me that feeling of family that I have grown to treasure over the years.
Happy anniversary, Piedmont Players. You’ve given me much more than I’ve given you.
Tickets are on sale now for Piedmont Players Theatre 50th Anniversary Gala March 3. Call 704-633-5471 for tickets and information.
Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.