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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Remembering Gene Saunders

I wanted to write this a few days ago, when I first heard the news. But it's been hard, folks. It still hasn't fully sunk-in that this has happened.

It was June of 1988 when I first met Gene Saunders, during a summer enrichment program at Rockingham County Senior High. I took the drama elective during the program and Gene - or "Mr. Saunders" as I'm still feeling inclined to call him - was our instructor.

I can still tell you the names of every single person that I took that elective with. Just as much as I can tell you what we all thought of Gene Saunders: we liked him immediately.

The program ran for a month, and in that time Gene put us through all the paces of serious theatre: improv, cold reading, lights and sounds, sets and props, makeup... the works.

Under Gene's direction, we found out that real acting is hard work... but it's a lot of fun, too. By the end of the elective, we could have stormed Broadway with what Gene had taught us.

A month and a half later I started classes at Rockingham as a freshman, and Gene was my drama instructor for an entire year. On one of the first days of class, Gene told the other students about how we'd met that summer and that "Chris is the kind of person that if I asked him to swing from the chandelier, he would do it without asking why."

I took that to heart, folks. In fact, I think that Gene Saunders helped crystallize a personal realization for me: that it was okay to be quirky and offbeat and passionate. Those weird school board campaign commercials that I did just over a year ago? When I was making the first one, I couldn't help but think about what Gene had taught me years earlier in high school. Months later he told me that he thought they were hilarious and I got to tell him then, that he was a big part of the inspiration. I'm glad he got to see them, and that he got to hear how he played a part in me going that route.

I got to participate in two productions under his direction: The Man Who Came to Dinner (actually I didn't do anything there other than running the sound effects) and Anything Goes. Both were a lot of fun. I think the best productions that happened during my time at Rockingham though were probably Grease and The Sound of Music. Which there's a funny story about that one in particular: our high school did The Sound of Music during my senior year, and on the show's final night, while the girl playing Maria was on stage singing, this... strange... sound went out through the auditorium. Not once, but three times. Then everyone realized that we were hearing somebody blowing their nose. Somebody with one of the wireless mikes that was still turned on. And then I remembered that Will, the guy portraying Captain Von Trap, was playing that night while suffering from a bad cold.

I saw Gene during intermission. "Hey Mr. Saunders: The hills are alive with the sound of mucous!"

Gene winced, covered his face, then started laughing. "Chris, only you could have said that." Years later, he was still remembering that horrible pun.

And there's another memory that I have of Gene, which may or may not be "funny", but it's one that I've always chuckled at. One day in class, Gene was telling us the story of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Which if you're an actor or other theatre person, you know that you're not supposed to actually say the word "Macbeth" because it's allegedly cursed, and that according to legend every performance of Macbeth has met with some misfortune or another. If you must talk about the play at all, you can say "The Scottish Play" or "that play".

Some time after that Gene had W.C. "Mutt" Burton, a well-known local actor and writer, come over to talk to us about drama. During his lecture, Burton told us about how he had been in productions of Macbeth, and after everything Gene had taught us about it, I was kind of startled to see this actor (who had done movies along with Burt Reynolds and other well-known names) saying "Macbeth" so nonchalantly. During the question-answer session that followed, I raised my hand and asked: "Do you believe in the Macbeth curse?"

"The what?", Burton replied.

"The Macbeth curse," I repeated. "You know, the thing about how you're not supposed to say the word "Macbeth" in a theatre because it's cursed. How actors are only meant to refer to it as 'The Scottish Play'..."

"Well that's the most ridiculous thing that I've ever heard of!! Who in the world told you that nonsense?!?" Burton practically bellowed.

Everyone pointed and said "Mr. Saunders told us that!" Now honestly folks, I did not mean to embarrass Gene like that: I really did think that "Mutt" Burton knew about the Macbeth curse. But after the initial shock of red that overcame his face, Gene was laughing pretty hard about it, too.

Even if you never had Gene as a teacher, you remembered him for something. Especially the habit he had while walking. If you ever attended "The Rock", then you know what I'm talking about: how Gene would walk down a hallway or across the commons while twirling that keyring of his, caching his keys in his palm and then releasing them, then catch and release again all while he walked. Gene thought it was funny too and he didn't mind that we would sometimes imitate him, especially if we did it during his drama class during some improvisation exercise. Actually, if you did impersonate Gene's walk during an improv in his drama class, he would always give you a good compliment about it.

But Gene's work extended far beyond the high school classroom (or auditorium in the case of drama). During my first year at Rockingham, Gene started the Theatre Guild of Rockingham County. It's first production, in the summer of 1989, was Bye Bye Birdie. In the years since, the Guild has produced many more wonderful shows, all of them showcasing the tremendous and diverse talents found throughout Rockingham County. This coming summer the Guild will be producing Children of Eden, and I will definitely be there on opening day to watch it open (if I don't audition for something in that show: Children of Eden is probably my all-time favorite musical :-). Gene was also quite active in other theatre activities in the area, and did quite a lot of productions and music work for local churches.

You know what always fascinated me most about Gene Saunders? The thing that, years later, I've come to realize is what it was about him that inspired me the most? It's that for Gene, it wasn't whether he was in the spotlight that mattered at all. It was whether he could put someone else in that spotlight... and especially someone who might never have thought about being put it in it at all. Gene never had anything to prove for himself: he was a great actor and singer. And he knew that deep down, everyone else had a great actor or singer waiting to come out, too. Gene wanted as many people as he came in contact with to find that, to use that, and to be appreciated for that.

I didn't realize it until a few days ago that Mr. Saunders wound up having a profound influence on my filmmaking pursuits. Because he did teach me how to look at everyone as a potential actor or actress, and that I should earnestly want to help them bring out and develop that potential so that they could be applauded for it.

The last time that I saw Gene, it was at the October meeting of the Rockingham County Board of Education. Gene spoke to the board about a new drama guild for the county's high school students, and that if they could get it up and running the first production this summer would be, fittingly enough, High School Musical. It was last spring at the All-County Chorus concert that I first found out that he'd had cancer, and Gene told me that he was about to have surgery. I told him he would be in our thoughts and prayers.

At the October meeting, he looked great! And he told me that he was feeling great, too. As he got up to make his pitch for the students drama guild, you wouldn't believe that this was a man who had just gone through that kind of ordeal. Nor do I think that any of us would have been able to believe that within a few weeks, it would have come back.

Carl Eugene Saunders Jr. passed away Monday night, on Christmas Eve.

Jonelle Davis of the News & Record has written a wonderful article about Gene's life.

Rockingham County Senior High School has lost one of its most beloved teachers. Rockingham County Schools has lost one of its most passionate advocates for the arts. The area has lost one of its cultural leaders.

And I - along with countless others through the years - have lost a good friend.

Gene, thank you. For everything that you did for us in your time on this Earth. And we thank God that He put you in our midst, for however brief a season.

I don't know of any better way to wrap this up, than to re-post here some of the thoughts that others have shared about Gene on his obituary at the News & Record website. Since these probably won't be up on that site forever, I'm going to archive them here for posterity...

Gene was an excellent teacher and will be greatly missed by everyone.
Debbie Ore (Reidsville, NC)
Mr. Saunders was a kind man with a wonderful heart for his students and his love of production. My love and prayers to his family and many friends.
Amy Hurst (Reidsville, NC)
My son, Jordan was in his first play of Peter Pan when he was 8. Gene Saunders played a perfect HOOK.
Since then Gene worked many plays with Jordan and then taught him four years at Rockingham High School. Gene was fun, full of laughter, lots of imagination and let the students learn how to become a better person. He inspired my son to continue his focus in acting. He will be missed so much by so many people but all the people he help find their positive outlooks will never never be forgotten
kathy hayes (reidsville, NC)
Mr. Saunders was a special guy there have been thousands of Students from RCSH that have benefitted from knowing and working with him on many productions. There wasn't a production that has been put on at the Rock in the past 20 years that Mr. Saunders didn't effect in one way or another and his inspiration will Live Long after his final breaths.
Eddie Perillo (Reidsville, NC)
Our community has lost a very dear member with the passing of Gene Saunders. He was a wonderful friend and colleague to my mom and a devoted teacher and inspiration for me, my younger brother and many of our friends. I will miss hearing his infectious laugh in the back of the RCHS theater and enjoying his productions, whether he directed or acted. He was truly a wonderful individual and we will miss him very much.
Lisa Worthington (Greensboro, NC)
Mr. Saunders was an outstanding man. I'm so glad I had opporutnites to work with him and learn from him and his "quarky" ways. I always looked forward to going to his classes or staying after school to prepare for a preformance.
He was a good guy, and a great friend. He will be missed.
Matthew Hicks (Danville, NC)
Mr. Saunders was my drama teacher for 2 years at Rockingham. Not only was he my favorite teacher but just a wonderful guy all around! He helped me overcome so many obistacles and for that I will never forget him! The community has lost a wonderful man and he will be greatly missed by many.
Racheal Chabot (Reidsville, NC)
Gene was one of those people that once you've met, you know you're going to carry the memory of him with you for the rest of your life. I first met him in the summer of 1988, when I took his drama elective during a summer enrichment program. A few months later I had Gene as my drama teacher in high school. In all the years since then, and even after he told me that he was sick, I never saw him as anything but animated and laughing and always smiling. And always eager to share his love of the stage with others so that, as some have noted, they could get their chance in the spotlight. A talented guy who was larger than life but never let that surpass his enormous measure of humility. Take care Gene, and thanks for sharing your passion and talents with us. Whether you knew it or not, you changed a lot of people's lives for the better, including mine.
Chris Knight (Reidsville, NC)
My daughter was in drama with Mr. saunders at RCSHS. She was in the Beauty and the Beast production. He was a wonderful teacher! He was one of the best and all the students loved him. He will be greatly missed!
Melissa Coleman (Reidsville, NC)
Gene was an excellent drama teacher and a good friend. You cannot replace a Gene Saunders.
Craven Peay (Summerfield, NC)
I learned so much from Gene, and always thoroughly enjoyed working with him. Whether alongside him during the tedium of blocking, set building or striking, on the boards in shows he directed, or enjoying his own performances while viewed from "the pit," he was unfailingly good humored and generous with his time.

Moreover, though aware of his own abilities - which were considerable - that awareness remained couched in modesty and never usurped his primary motivation: to help others enjoy the spotlight and achieve their greatest potential. To that end he had a special magic; he could transform the ordinary into the good, and the good into the sublime.

We'll miss you, Gene, until the time for our own "Cue 1, go." Then we'll all put on another show...
Bruce Michaels (High Point, NC)

My favorite memory of Gene was his portrayal of Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady while he was in graduate school at UNCG. He was perfect in this role. He was a caring teacher.
Robert Thurston (Greensboro, NC)
Gene was a fellow chorus member in Livestock / CTG's production of "Sweeney Todd." He was such a joy to be around because he love to laugh and joke. His love of the theatre was truly infectious. Gene was also a kind and giving man always ready to help those in need. I will miss him.
Steffanie Vaughan (Greensboro, NC)
I worked with Mr Saunders on the set for Beauty and the Beast, his passion for the students and the production was un matched. The students and RCHS will miss him dearly.
Bob Griffith (Reidsville, NC)
Gene was an inspiration to me in drama and in life. I will miss him dearly.
Craven Peay (Summerfield, NC)


Anonymous said...

Chris, thanks for writing this about Mr Saunders. He had such an influence on all of us, and I think many of us may feel that a part of our childhood is gone now. I'll quote The Sound of Music here:

Regretfully they tell us
But firmly they compel us
To say goodbye to you.

Angie Apple (Maria)

Anonymous said...

Oh, mercy me!!! I come on line to see what is happening in Reidsville and find that Gene is gone! I am so utterly saddened by the loss of this loving, gentle, kind man. Gene and Beverly Burke first hired me to teach voice at The Fine Arts School of Rockingham County in 1996, and I was immediately taken by his enthusiasm and love for the theatre. No matter what role I saw him portray through the short years I worked with him - he always left me thinking he had outdone everyone else with his acting. I don't believe the man was afraid to do anything! On stage he was fearless at taking risks. And he was always right.
I will miss him terribly, but am thankful to have known him and take comfort in the fact that I have many pictures with him. Goodbye, Gene. You are well and much loved. See you on the other side, dear friend.

Patti Harris
Kennesaw, GA
(formerly Greensboro, NC)

Anonymous said...

Gene, you were the best man in my wedding 30 years ago in Moline, Illinois. You were not just a mentor but a brother to me when I was in college. I will miss you! Godspeed my friend. - Paul Peterson

Anonymous said...

Mr. Saunders!
Our rides to Alleman were always so much fun...YOU were so much fun. I learned, "pan right, pan left" and loved the comercials we made in class. Your enthusiasm to teach poured out to the student's enthusiasm to learn. You were a teacher ahead of your time. I still remember you in the balcony of St. Marys directing dad as he sang the Our Father in my wedding. You will be dearly missed. Thanks for the memories and thank God for you. I can only imagine the choir in heaven when you arrived....
Mona Peterson/Connelly

Anonymous said...

rip: gene saunders
Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 4:24am | Edit Note | Delete
To paraphrase Lewis Grizzard ---Gene Saunders is dead and i don't feel so good myself---------Yeah I know-------------it sucks-----but I can't ------and won't live in sadness, Gene wouldn't have wanted it that way--Gene was like a kid inside--y'know? he loved to laugh!!----------- he loved to live!!--He loved THE PLAY-------He was thoughtful and genuinely kind---He had a story for every occasion and a masterful way of telling it. I'd shed a tear in sadness, but so much more telling are the tears shed in laughter--------------------------------------------------Gene Saunders was/is as alive as anyone COULD EVER be,,-----animated---funny--loud---outrageous---unwilling to live the same day twice--- he was my teacher and my friend but ultimately he is my lesson---my lesson on how to remain happy, how to be gracious, how to be determined in relation to something you believe in, how to nurture a life and a friend in the theatre. and ultimately, no matter what ignoble circumstance befall you, how to remain dignified to the end. It's been sorely pointed out time and again, how short life can be, but when death takes a friend, these are the moments when we decide for ourselves, by ourselves,, important tenents of how we go on,, to change or not,,,, to care or not, to get out of bed tomorrow, to love the people in our lives with a little more gusto, to let the other guy out in traffic once in a while, .....and a million other thoughts that share a little space in us with our sense of humanity, -------a little space that today,with the passing of a friend, seems just a little emptier inside. --Chuck Owens, Reidsville ,NC January 1st 2008

Unknown said...

Nice story Chris. He was a good guy.