KEN BRADBURY Nov. 7, 1949 – Nov. 18, 2018
He put central Illinois on stage
In the late 80s I directed a play at Fulton County Playhouse near Bryant. I was away after the play opened and received a call from an actor: “Ken Bradbury came to the show this weekend!” Ken Bradbury’s fame in central Illinois was already fixed. Bradbury, who died Nov. 18, taught at Triopia High School for many years, where he wrote musicals performed each year. The first time I attended one of his shows there, I was told to arrive at least an hour early to get in line. Sure enough, I arrived to lines snaked around the hallways of the school, as Bradbury strolled up and down serenading the crowds waiting to enter the auditorium. He always thought of his audience. He knew the talent and wrote for them. He wrote hundreds of scenes and monologues for students to perform at speech contests. Ken Bradbury was a man who affected thousands of lives.
He wrote about the people he knew – in a way that was true and not caricature. His writing celebrated life in central Illinois. There were big laughs, clever songs, sobering truths – and always goosebumps.
His wise and wonderful character Freida Marie Crump in his weekly syndicated newspaper column The Coonridge Digest was an observer of small town life as well as the whole country. Ken used humor to hit home truths and to hold up a mirror to society. He was a man of faith who was able to cross boundaries.
In 2003, I worked with Ken on his very personal play, Singing At Seven. Ken’s mother died in July 1998. In November I received a script in the mail, then titled A Room Full of Strangers. His mother’s death was unexpected, and he’d gone into a deeper place than ever before writing this play. It took five years before he felt ready to have it produced. Not only was it personal, I asked him to play a lead role, which he performed beautifully with Sylvia Burke, as two aging residents of a retirement home.
In the play’s program, Ken wrote, “It’s a comedy with a great deal of painful truth. The elderly couple in this play are at odds with the American way of dying, and they fight back with the only tool that they have left to them – humor. This play is a little jewel box that I wanted to create for all the tough people of character I’ve known in my life.”
He wrote many plays and musicals for youth and communities. He dug into history and created the popular musicals Vachel with a V!, Abraham!, Toad in the Hole and Distant Thunder. His play The Last Full Measure is an experimental work about what might have been going on in Lincoln’s mind from the moment the bullet entered his skull until his final breath.
Greg Floyd, 52, was in first grade in Chapin when he was plucked by Ken from a group of kids to be a last-minute replacement in a show. Since then, his entire life has been wrapped up in acting in countless shows by Ken. “It’s unfathomable to think where or what I would have been without his guiding hand,” Greg remembers. “I spent my whole life trying in shows and life to seek acceptance or approval. And Ken was always there. My entire work ethic in theater – as well as in life – comes from Ken.”
Greg performed in several productions of Cotton Patch Gospel with Ken as they toured around the state through the years, including the production in 2017 at the Hoogland Center. “It was our show,” he said. Greg last saw Ken in the hospital on election night and they spoke about a future staging of the show.
Ken wrote in his journal during that last production of Cotton Patch”: “I’ve tried to explain to non-theater folks what it feels like on opening night . . . an attempt to explain the aura that surrounds an actor when a show is about to open, all to no avail. You simply have to live it and experience it to understand what goes through a performer’s head (and sometimes body) on opening night.”
One of my favorites was Ken’s 2017 play, The Boy from Fishhook: The Story of Robert Earl Hughes. Hughes (1926-1958) was called the “World’s Largest Man” and spent time touring to county fairs. Sitting in the audience at an Illinois College performance (completely sold out, as always) once again I admired Ken’s knack for taking what was once a sensationalist news story and turning it into a poignant character study about a loving human being who also possessed a great sense of humor and love of people. That was Ken Bradbury.
Phil Funkenbusch most recently directed All the Way at the Hoogland Center for the Arts and Spoon River Anthology for Theatre in the Park. He directs Five Presidents by Rick Cleveland at the ALPLM in the spring of 2019 and Walking Across Egypt at New Salem next August.