Crafting Broadway Bobby Star

By August Krickel

There is a moment on stage at Workshop Theatre, during The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, in which “volunteers” are plucked from the audience. At first they are given simple words to spell, then are quickly dispatched via increasingly difficult words; a judge rings a loud bell to signal their elimination. On opening night, Bobby Craft was chosen. Upon receiving his impossible word, Craft paused, looked around, then confidently strode over to the judges’ table and rang himself out, signifying that he wasn’t even going to waste their time.

Unrehearsed and spontaneous, it was a classic and quintessential Bobby Craft moment − part sass and impishness, part creativity and improvisation − with the talent to carry it out with perfect comic timing for maximum comedic effect.

And he wasn’t even in the cast.

Bobby Craft has been entertaining local audiences for more than 35 years. An attempt to tally the total number of shows featuring Craft quickly reaches the high nineties; then there are commercials, PSAs, training films, trade and industrial shows, singing groups, and benefit performances. In a city where performers often align themselves with a particular organization, Craft has moved freely from show to show, venue to venue, group to group. “I guess you could just charge that to my attitude,” Craft says. “I’d like to think I can get along with just about anyone, as long as you treat them the way you’d want to be treated. It’s as simple as that.” His secret? “Stay away from drama, divas, gossip, and generally people who complain all the time. Life is too short to waste your time and energy on anything or any situation that isn’t worth the effort. A little love and compassion goes a long way.”

Craft seems universally loved within the theatre community, thanks to that positive attitude. Actor Mark Newsome says that he remembers “Bobby being fearless and the consummate professional. Bobby always brings a large dose of positive energy to whatever he’s doing. He’s like sunshine.” Actress Laurel Posey agrees: “Bobby is an absolute original, one of a kind, and a Columbia theatre institution. I can’t imagine our community without his presence and generous spirit.”

An ebullient performer on stage, Craft dresses the part of the “star” offstage as well. He’s often spotted in bright colors, decorated with stars and rhinestones. “The bedazzling!” as Posey relates. “I treasure my Bobby Craft-embellished items and always love seeing his latest ensemble, whether subtle or full-throttle sparkle.” Bobby doesn’t recall who first started calling him “Broadway Bobby” back in the ‘70s, but the nickname stuck, until someone else created “Bobby Star.” “I will answer to both,” Craft says, or even a combination, often signing a note with “Broadway Bobby Star.” “I even have a personalized license tag that says ‘STAR,’ and I’ve added a few rhinestones to it, to give it that sparkle that I love so much.” Now if a friend sees him without “some kind of sparkle or shine,” they wonder “What’s wrong? Where’s your rhinestones?” He confesses, “Sometimes I just want to be plain.”

Don’t think that Craft always has to be the star, however. Another of his endearing qualities, almost unique among performers, is his willingness to perform lead roles, then ensemble parts, then supporting characters, even cameo appearances. “I don’t always have to be in the spotlight,” he admits, preferring to be a team player, much as an athlete might be happy to be part of a winning team. He recalls how the late director Bette Herring often reminded her casts of the traditional aphorism: there are no small parts, only small actors.

Standing usually about a head shorter than most of his cast mates, Craft is nevertheless a giant on stage. In The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Posey recalls that Craft played an Aggie football player, and “he was one of the Chicken Ranch girls in drag. How’s THAT for versatile?” Craft’s often outrageous and mischievous stage persona has led to some backstage hijinks as well. Actress Dell Goodrich recalls that Craft “was in every single musical I ever did around here for the first 20 years that I was a part of the theatre community.” She and her mother, Francy Goodrich, still laugh about an episode from a dress rehearsal for The Sound of Music nearly 30 years ago. As a somber procession of nuns slowly makes its way through the house towards the stage, “each of the nuns on house right seems to be tripping over something in the aisle. A few of them give a little shriek, and some of them giggle, but they try to maintain the solemnity of the scene.” Sure enough, it was Craft, “reclining across the aisle like he’s on the beach, grinning up at each nun as she approaches him in the dark and nearly steps on him on her way to the stage. Mom said she and everyone else who witnessed it laughed about it all night and into the following weeks. It was a totally ‘Bobby Craft’ thing to do.”

For one so uninhibited, Craft surprises many in person with his soft-spoken charm and humility. A youthful retiree after a 32-year career with the Circuit Provisioning Group in Southern Bell/BellSouth’s Network Division, Craft embarked on a second career in November of 2008 as a guest teacher (“substitute,” he clarifies) in Richland School District One. Teaching K-12, Craft has logged more than 100 days per school year, including long-term assignments in theatre and music. “I have enjoyed teaching, because I figure if I can turn even one child’s life around, it would have been well worth it. I won’t say it’s been an easy job, because today’s kids are a lot different than when I was growing up. You hear a lot of people say that teachers are underpaid? Well, I can attest to that.” One difference he sees today is teens’ addiction to technology, texting in particular. He recently stage-managed productions of High School Musical 2 and Hairspray at Workshop Theatre and fought a never-ending (and ironic, given his career with Bell) battle with his young cast members to put down their phones backstage. Goodrich, now a teacher herself, notes how Craft “truly does connect with everyone, including moms and children.” Even at age 9, she recalls: “I do remember how in awe I was of Bobby Craft. He was probably in his early 20s then, and we kids all idolized him.” She still looks forward to his pranks, even if it’s a call during her rowdiest class to request some Vitametavegamin, the tonic from I Love Lucy that has become a running joke between them.

Teaching in Richland One is familiar territory for Craft, a baby-boomer who was born in Columbia and attended Carver Elementary, W. A. Perry Junior High, C.A. Johnson High School, then A.C. Flora for his junior and senior years. His first musical was Once Upon A Mattress at Flora; the following year, his drama teacher, Jim Thigpen, cast him in The Death of Bessie Smith. USC followed, where Craft performed in numerous shows as well as in the marching band as a flutist. While at USC, he performed in Purlie with Brenda Pressley. “You might say she has been my inspiration to strive to be the very best in all that I do,” Craft admits. “The first Broadway show I saw was Dreamgirls, and Brenda was in the original cast. That is where I met two other actresses, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Brenda Braxton, and I’ve kept in touch with them over the years. They, too, have been my inspiration; I call all three of them my Dreamgirls.”

Interestingly, Craft is best known as a song-and-dance man but never formally studied either. “It’s all been on- the-job training, watching other actors in shows, and you learn from them,” he explains. He notes that his musical ability may have come from his father, who played upright bass in jazz bands with musicians like Dick Goodwin. He admits much of what he does on stage is improvised. Craft has performed in the Columbia City Ballet’s production of Off the Wall and Onto the Stage, appearing as a bartender in the second act. In its latest incarnation, he wanted the chance to do more. “I went to William (Starrett) and said ‘please expand my role.’” The result was Craft’s participation in a jubilant number called Let the Good Times Roll.” Everyone goes down the middle like the old line on Soul Train,” showing off their best dance moves, and for the most recent show in Charleston, Craft nonchalantly grins, confessing that at the last minute, “I added a cartwheel. And then a split.”

It’s those fearless moments for which Craft is known, from dressing up to portray a stepsister in Cinderella to running up the side of the old arch at Town Theatre while singing Fabulous Feet. As one of the most visible performers of color in a city where roles for African-Americans are not the easiest to find, Craft agrees that “in recent years, we’ve come a long way. But we still have a long way to go.” Craft has played some of the stage’s best-known African-American roles: Hud in Hair, Richie in A Chorus Line, and “The Negro” in The Roar of the Greasepaint, as well as roles traditionally cast with black actors: the Lead Player in Pippin, the Scarecrow in The Wiz, and the voice of Audrey 2 in Little Shop of Horrors. Yet some of Craft’s best work has been in colorblind roles: Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Nicely Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls, Teen Angel in Grease, and the outrageous houseboy Jacob in La Cage aux Folles. “I can’t say that I have a favorite,” Craft reflects, “because each has meant something to me in a special way. I can say that I’ve done certain shows twice or in some cases three times playing the same role. Some of my friends kid me because I’ve done Chorus Line three times as Richie, and they say that the next time I’ll be doing Richie with a walker. NOT!”

Is there anything he can’t do? Craft concedes that, only once, at the request of the late Jim E. Quick, did he try his hand at choreographing, and that “wasn’t my strong suit, so that will probably be the only time I will do that.” Directors he has enjoyed working with are a veritable Who’s Who of local theatre over the past four decades: Quick, the late Bette Herring, Ann Dreher, David Avin, and Cindy Flach. “Personally, I think people in the arts are some of the best people in the world when it comes to friendliness and to caring and loving individuals. I’ve met and held on to some great friends over the years, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.” Yet his greatest joy is simply being able to make audiences smile. “I aim to please people. (A musical) revives their spirits, and it takes them away from their problems. If they’ve had a horrible day, it gives them a moment of happiness. When I’m recognized on the street, that makes me feel good.”

Craft next will be seen in the Vibrations Dance Company production of Sista Girl and the Soldier, a contemporary urban retelling of The Nutcracker. While performing in Smokey Joe’s Cafe this past summer at Trustus, director Terrance Henderson recruited him. Craft remembers: “I was judging a high school performance competition − singing, dancing, acting − and Terrance was a contestant. I knew right then that he was going places. I told him ‘You go on and go for it and be successful.’” Several generations of performers in the Midlands now have benefited from their associations with Craft, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Whether behind the scenes as stage manager, out in front as a lead singer, or as part of a dance ensemble, there’s no doubt that audiences will continue to enjoy the craft of Bobby Craft.

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