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'Wonderful Life' plays out at the Playhouse

We may be seeing the last days of the Flat Rock Playhouse.

I keep thinking of my favorite Christmas movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," as I watch and report on what could be the end of the venerable theater that so many patrons in our community and the South have loved for 60 years.
Bill McKibbin is George Bailey, cast without wanting to be in the role to save the family business after Uncle Billy loses the bank deposits and rival banker Mr. Potter recovers the cash and calls bank examiners to shut down Bailey's Building & Loan for being insolvent.
In real life, Bill McKibbin, like George Bailey, is a second generation CEO of a respected family business, Henderson Oil Co., in his hometown. I don't think Bill would rather leave Bedford Falls (Hendersonville) and travel the world like George Bailey wanted to, but I bet there have been a lot of moments lately when he wished he were somewhere else. Whatever you think about decisions the Playhouse Board of Directors has made, you ought to cut Bill some slack if you have any Christmas kindness at all. He doesn't need this magnificent headache, yet he agreed to stay on for another year as Playhouse president.
Is Vincent Marini Uncle Billy? A lot of people would say yes, insofar as they blame Marini for losing the money to start with. (The Playhouse had a surplus of $3.4 million at the end of 2007; it now $2.6 million in debt and out of cash.)
But Marini is too slick to be Uncle Billy. He spent money, way too much money, but he's anything but senile. Marini is more like Violet — seduced by and seducing us with a vision of bright lights and Broadway dreams. We're little Hendersonville. Can't we make do with local actors? Wasn't the old barn good enough, with its charming shabbiness, worn seats and troublesome sightlines? Marini would say no. We need bigger and better.
So, Bill McKibbin and the rest of us may actually see what life is like without the Flat Rock Playhouse. Like George Bailey, Bill must have visions of what the Village of Flat Rock, the 100 block of North Main Street and the YouTheatre would be like with no Playhouse to populate it.

'Ma Bailey'
Barbara Bradshaw is Ma Bailey. She is the rock of the Rock. She's been there for four decades, from the days as romantic lead directed by Robroy Farquhar to her appearances in recent seasons as a matriarch or a doddering foil.
Chase Brock, the nationally renowned Broadway choreographer announced he was donating his salary and fee for writing and directing his new "Nutcracker." Barbara responded on the "Save the Playhouse" Facebook page: "Okay...Damn you, Chase Brock. :-) Your inspiration cannot be ignored. I am calling DJ and Vincent Marini tomorrow...I will donate my current mailings receipts AND I will drive myself home, no reimbursement necessary. Between those and my financial donation... THERE IS MY $200!! God Bless my family here and the Rock!"
Many others have donated their salaries and forgiven payment of invoices. The Playhouse staff and its alumni have scheduled fundraisers from Flat Rock to Broadway. Still, as Marini said Tuesday, it's day to day.
And the angels?
The Vagabonds past and present make up a host of angels. They're showing us what life would be like without the Playhouse by telling us how their lives turned out because of the Playhouse. Chase Brook, local boy who made good, is an example.
"It would be a real tragedy, as someone who went through this program from the time I was 6 and learned most everything I know about the theater here," he said when asked about the possibility of the theater closing. "Clearly I've devoted my entire life to theater, I've been working now for 15 years almost in New York on Broadway. My life would not be the same at all had this place not existed, and I can only imagine, now that the enrollment (in YouTheatre) has tripled since I was here, how many kids are benefiting the same way. ... It would be a real shame, especially as the 60th anniversary season comes to a close. It would be heartbreaking."

A roomful of Mr. Potters

Who is Mr. Potter? That's easy. The Henderson County commissioners. When he's at his most desperate, near the end of hope, Bill McKibbin asks for support, a kind word, recognition that the Playhouse and its economic value are worth preserving. What do these pompous Potters do? They grandstand and growl. They kick him when he's down. They play to the crowd. "You're out of business, ehh? Too bad," they snarl. "Get out of our courthouse before we call the bank examiner!"
And Harry Bailey? It's Robin Farquhar. He's our last hope. Bedford Falls loves Harry Bailey, worships Harry Bailey. Harry Bailey the hero. But Harry Bailey has moved on. Love for what he was, admiration for what he did, longing for his presence in the bloom of youth, will not bring him back. Robin is gone.
I picture Billy Munoz as Nick the bartender. A soldier of the old guard, he is production manager of the Playhouse. But the title I love to read in the playbill is fight coach. He's a fighter. Billy and his wife, Neela, and Katie Mooney launched the Facebook page that has grown to more than 3,500 members. It's the modern day version of the entire town of Bedford Falls turning out to save the Building & Loan. Vagabonds use Facebook.
But Vagabonds are actors and dancers and musicians, for goodness sakes! They don't have any money. A hundred dollars is a lot of money to these kids. It will take 2,500 donors at that rate to raise the $250,000 needed to save our Building & Loan, the Playhouse.

The clock ticks ...

In my dream I see the scene.
It's Christmas Eve. Billy and Neela and 50 other Vagabonds congregate in the Lowndes house conference room where Katie Mooney peers at a laptop screen and shouts out the running total of Facebook pledges.
The clock ticks.
Off in a corner, cellphone glued to his ear, Bill McKibbin talks quietly to a donor in Laurel Park, his eyes brighter than they were five minutes before. Vincent Marini talks fast into a cellphone connected to a wealthy Broadway producer with a Vagabond pedigree.
The clock ticks.
Snow falls on the theater outside; snowflakes swirl around the weathervane image of Robroy Farquhar. Soon the great flat rock will be covered and dangerous to walk on.
The clock ticks.
People send messages that they emptied their piggybanks, called off their vacation, sold their old trumpet and donated their Christmas bonus because they'd rather live in a world with the Flat Rock Playhouse than live in a world without it.
A car pulls up and people pile out amid much merriment. They are carrying a large basket overflowing with cash from a benefit at the downtown Playhouse space.
The clock ticks ...