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Tributes pour in for George Wilkins Jr., musical soul of the Playhouse for many years

George Wilkins Jr. George Wilkins Jr.

Carol McKendrick Wilkins shared the news of her husband's death on Facebook on Thanksgiving Day. "My Georgie is gone," she said. He died shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday at home, she said.
 
From the Flat Rock to Broadway and beyond, performers who acted, sang and danced in the decades of shows Wilkins music-directed at the Playhouse paid tribute, praising his mentoring, his humor and his skill as a musician and show conductor.
In addition to Carol, he is survived by a son, Christopher; brothers Bobby Wilkins and Jimmy Wilkins, and a sister, Virginia Wilkins. His younger sister, Wendy, a beloved Playhouse singer and actor, died of cancer in 1999 in her 30s.
Bobby Wilkins said the family expected to announce a tribute to his big brother's life at a later time.
 
A prodigy at a young age, George Wilkins was featured in a Life magazine article about kids with extraordinarily high IQs. The photo accompanying the article showed him playing the piano.
 
"He was the church organist at St. John in the Wilderness when he was 15," Bobby said. "I remember because my parents had to take him there."
At holiday gatherings, George would walk in the room and blow up games of Trivial Pursuit because he knew every answer, Bobby recalled.
 
Fran Shelton, a neighbor and friend for years, said the community had lost a towering contributor to the rich history of performing arts in Hendersonville and Flat Rock.
"I thought that George was the most amazing musician that Hendersonville has ever produced," said Shelton, who as the longtime band director of Hendersonville High School taught plenty of talented musicians. "That's how much respect I had for his musicianship. There was nobody better. This town has produced a lot of good musicians. To me he was the premier and I always wanted to be like him. I aspired to be at his musical level. He was just such an inspiration."

Shelton had a family connection with George even before they bonded over music. Her mother taught at Bruce Drysdale Elementary School, where George's father was principal. He became her mentor before she was old enough to drive.

"I would play in those orchestras they had at the Playhouse, so that's how I got to know him," she said. "George would come get me and we'd go play those Playhouse things."

A French major at UNC, Wilkins was admired not only for his virtuoso piano playing but for his sense of humor and his ability, as actor and singer Amy Jones cracked, "to use the 'f-word' like a pro."

"Oh, yeah," Shelton said of his well-known blue streak. "Sometimes I would count how many times he used it per sentence and I would just go, 'George, I am so impressed.'"

Shelton, George and Carol, George's younger brother Bobby, the Hendersonville High School principal, and more recently his other brother, Jimmy, all live within a block of one another in lower Laurel Park.

"Every time he practiced for those (Broadway musicals), you could hear him in the house playing Chopin or Mozart," Shelton said. When she asked him why, Wilkins told her he always performed the classical masters to warm up for Broadway scores.

"We would sit on his porch and talk music," she said. "He was just so much fun as a neighbor."

Lisa K. Bryant, the artistic creative director of the Playhouse, has known Wilkins since the early 1990s when she was an 18-year-old Playhouse apprentice and he emerged as "one of my earliest cheerleaders in the world of professional theater."

"Gosh, I don't know how to talk about George Wilkins," she said. "He was his own definition of a person. He was a noun, he was a verb, he was an expletive. Certainly he was brilliant. He was a prodigy as a child. He loved music and he loved musicians and he loved thearer. His soul was that of an artist and when you're in a partnership like that where you're artist to artist and artist heart to artist heart it's just this sort of 'other' connection. He loved working with people and he loved people that loved it as much as he did, and when you find each other it's just natural."
Wilkins' devotion to quality and his determination to make shows the best they could be flowed into the musicians and singers he directed.
 
"The musicians loved him," Bryant said. "They still love him and miss him to this day — his ability to connect with them. He was magical in the music he made and the way he felt it. It's not just playing the notes in front of him, it's feeling the notes."
 
When she announced her husband's death, Carol Wilkins invited Vagabonds to "share your funny stories about him."
 
They did share funny stories — and poignant ones.
 
"During rehearsals for 'Taffetas', there was a harmony I was having a hard time getting," Amy Jones, a close friend and longtime Playhouse actor, recalled. "He would play right up to that point, then stop, look at me, and wait until I could 'hear' the chord in my mind and sing the note. He understood intuitively how I THOUGHT. Never missed that harmony again."
 
"George was the smartest person I ever met. And the funniest," Jones added. "He was my mentor, my friend, and the big brother I never had."
 
 
"We love you George," Chase Brock, a Hendersonville native and Playhouse YouTheatre alumnus who owns and directs a nationally renowned dance company in New York City, wrote on Facebook. "Thank you for so many wonderful memories, and so much belief in me over the thirty years I knew you. I hope you and Wendy have reunited and are laughing and making music and shenanigans already."
 

"I adored George," wrote Erin Mosher, a Broadway singer who performed at the Playhouse for several years. "I loved playing and singing with him. He would always make me laugh, and feel so supported and elated during every musical performance we did together. I adored him and our time together. ... Truly an amazing and one of a kind human."

"Two huge influences are gone for me this week," Dan Gibson said. "Stephen Sondheim, who I obviously did not know, is a huge reason why I fell in love with theatre and writing. ... Then George Wilkins, who I had the amazing honor of knowing, learning from, working with, and laughing adjacent to, at the Flat Rock Playhouse for 5 seasons. I could write for hours about how he shaped me, and I’m sorry if you can’t do the same."