‘Becca’ McKinley had us in the palm of her hand

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 18, 2013

It is never easy for any of us to lose a good friend, but many did Sept. 3 with the passing of Rebecca Reitz McKinley.
My friendship with Becca began back in the late spring of 1977. Hedrick Little Theatre was filled with enthusiastic thespian wannabes who were there to try out for the first-ever Piedmont Players summer production. “The King and I” had been selected as the show.
There was a huge turnout, ranging from moppets to a few even older than I. I recall a young fellow named Bernhardt was there. Ken, Kenny, something like that. He was a radio announcer. Wonder whatever happened to him?
The tryouts dragged out because of the large crowd. At one point, the director called a name I had never heard, and a lady went up to the piano. I can’t recall what she sang for her audition, but when she cut loose with it, everyone in Hedrick came to attention and straightened up in their seats. “Wow” was the consensus as our buzz permeated the theater.
The lady was Becky (she went by Becky then) McKinley, a Salisbury resident of but a few months, if my memory serves me.
Speaking with Dr. Karl Hales after her memorial service Sept. 6, I found our first recollections of Becca were the same.
When “The King and I” cast selections were announced, Karl was our King, and I was the Kralahome (the King’s right-hand man). Becca was to be the King’s number one wife (the ole King had a bunch of them). Off subject, the Bernhardt kid got a part, too.
Over the course of the next eight weeks, the large cast and crew grew very close, which was always one of my favorite things about doing community theater. Being a summer production, we partied a little more than usual, many times filling the back room at the Prince of Pizza on West Innes Street (Andy Meng’s laundromat is there now).
But one of the first of the group to open their home to this ensemble was Becca, and she did so more than once.
She was a fabulous hostess, and over a large number of years, Piedmont Players groups, as well as many others, enjoyed her gracious hospitality.
I have a long-time habit of having film showings with friends. On a number of occasions, I called to invite Becca. Her response was often, “Hey, let’s have it at my place. I’ll make potato salad and this and that, and we’ll have a great time.” So instead of Becca bringing tater salad to my house, I took a 16mm film projector and a stack of reels of film to hers.
She always left the movie selections up to me, except once. “Do you have anything with Errol Flynn?” she asked. “I always liked him.”
“How about the “Adventures of Robin Hood”? I asked.
“Oh, yes, love it. Can you bring that?”

For you youngsters who might be reading along, Errol Flynn was a huge movie star in his era, much like the Channing Tatums of today. (Geez, what am I saying?)
I had the privilege of working on stage with Becca several more times. In the summer of 1978, she was cast as the Mother Superior in “the Sound of Music.” We did the show in the mammoth Keppel Auditorium, and each night drew 600-700 people.
Patsy Parnell, Jeff Ketner and I shared the stage with Becca when she sang “Climb Every Mountain.” When we left the stage opening night, she stopped me and asked if her song had gone all right. Why she didn’t ask Patsy or Jeff, who were great singers, and instead asked me, I don’t know. But she was concerned about her performance.
“It didn’t feel right to me. Was it OK?”
I was flattered that she must have respected my opinion to ask, so I told her the simple truth. “Are you serious? You just held 700 people in the palm of your hand.”
And a few years later, when I heard her performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” during the PPT production of “Carousel,” I had goose bumps, it was so moving.
When we did “Gypsy,” she and I shared a scene together with a group of children. Becca was the pushy stage mother Rose who came on a bit strong with my character, Uncle Jocko, a worn-out theatrical talent scout who hated to work with pushy stage mothers and kids.
A prop Becca carried during the scene was a live dog. During one performance, and one performance only, Becca did a bit of ad-libbing. At the height of Rose and Jocko’s arguing, instead of carrying the dog throughout the scene which she was supposed to do, she shoved the pooch into my chest and said, “YOU hold him.”
So I had to finish the scene, holding this wiggling canine, while trying to write comments on a clipboard about the auditioning kids.
When we were offstage, Becca asked me if I minded what she had done. “It felt like the right thing to do at the moment.”
“It was great,” I told her. “It got a big laugh. I wonder what Hubert (the director) thought.”
I still don’t know.

One thing I loved about Becca is that she always told you what she thought. You knew where you stood with her. If I asked her if she liked my new shirt, or whatever, and she didn’t, she would say so. But she said it respectfully. And I respected that. Rebecca McKinley could also “take it” as well as “dish it out.” I had lots of fun with her in this regard.
I should preface what I am about to relay with what was supposed to happen.
Five to ten years ago, I was home working one day when my telephone rang. Becca’s intention was to call a female friend (I’ll call her Mary) to ask her to lunch the next day.
As fate would have it, instead of calling Mary’s number, she called mine.
I didn’t have caller I.D. then, so I just old-schooled it and answered.

Silence. Apparently, she was startled that a male voice answered.
“Uh, may I speak to Mary, please?” she asked.
I immediately recognized her voice, so I decided to have a little sport with her. This wasn’t the first time that had ever happened.
“Sorry, Mary’s not here. She’s gone skydiving. May I take a message?”

Finally, “Uh, skydiving?”
“Yes. She’s only making one jump today, so she should be back in a couple of hours. Is there a message, Becky?” (She still went by Becky at this time.)
“You know who I am?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s Becky McKinley, right?”
She responded, “Uh, yes.”

“Well, do you want to leave a message? I don’t have all day, lady.”
Hearing irritation in her voice, she finally asked the question of which I was waiting.”
“WHO IS THIS?” she asked.

“It’s Becky McKinley. We’ve already established that.”

“Oh, me? It’s Mike, Becky.”

Finally, she inquired, “Mike … Cline?”
“Yeah, how ya doin’?”

I was feeling a bit cocky about the gag I had pulled when she shot me down by asking, “What are YOU doing at Mary’s house?”
I explained she had called the wrong number, and after she explained why she had called, I told her I’d be happy to have lunch with her the next day.
Well, THAT lunch never happened, at least, not with me.
But my wife, Julie, and I did frequently run into her at restaurants the last few years, and the three of us often sat together, talking about the theater days and times we had spent together. She always asked about our children and grandchildren and showed us photos of hers.
It saddens me knowing times like that are no longer possible.
It also makes me sad knowing that golden singing voice is now silent, at least where we are.
But there’s no question that the choir up above is sounding more beautiful these days.

Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” has been expanded and now documents all the movies shown in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1989.