Brother Dave lives again at Barn. Rejoice!

by Ogi Overman

With all due respect to Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and all the other members of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, any comic whose neck bears a crimson tint and whose dialect does not permit words to end in ‘G’ owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Brother Dave Gardner, For it was Brother Dave, a Tennessee native, who was the pioneer, the original, the progenitor who provided the template for all those Southern comics to follow.

Much of the current crop of homespun humorists are no doubt too young to remember Gardner, since most of his best work was done in the ’50s and ’60s and he died of a heart attack in 1983. But there is one proud son of the South who is almost single-handedly keeping his memory alive, Dave Wright. Burlington native Wright has written and performs a stage rendition of Gardner’s life that is a loving and eerily accurate re-creation of not only his stand-up comedy routine but the swirl of his entire, albeit rather brief, life. It is called Rejoice Dear Hearts: An Evening with Brother Dave Gardner, and it opened at the Barn Dinner Theatre last Saturday for a run that will last until June 10.

“We call it a ‘rags to riches to rags to redemption’ story,” said Wright, whose other persona is the managing director and artistic director of the Paramount Theatre Acting Company. “It’s a combination of his classic comedy routines from his first four albums and this amazing life story as told by those who knew and loved him. It shows how his life influenced his comedy and his comedy influenced his life. We have a soundtrack of actors portraying his first wife Millie after her death, his second wife Judy, Jack Parr and others.”

Incidentally, it was Parr, the original host of “The Tonight Show” before Johnny Carson, who gave Gardner the “Brother” appellation. Gardner made over 30 appearances on the late-night show, and the total would doubtlessly have been much higher except for some horrible advice from none other than Col. Tom Parker, who, in addition to managing Brother Dave, worked with another celebrity of the era, some hip-swiveling singer named Elvis.

According to Wright, “Col. Parker told him he needed to get off television, that he shouldn’t give it away but rather make people pay to see and hear him. He told him to concentrate on working nightclubs and making comedy albums. Here you had this golden age of TV comedy emerging and Dave didn’t take advantage of it. Of course, he made a lot of money doing standup and selling albums, but look at Andy Griffith, who stayed with TV, and the difference in their careers is immeasurable.”

Still, in addition to becoming the godfather of Southern stand-up, he also paved the way for the comedy album. Even before Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart and George Carlin were releasing successful comedy LPs, Gardner was cranking out million-selling jewels like Rejoice Dear Hearts, Ain’t That Weird, Kick Thy Own Self and Did You Ever. In all he recorded eight albums between 1959 and ’68, but an arrest for marijuana possession in 1962 seemed to cause him to fall out of favor with some of his fans.

Wright, like most baby boomers, became a Brother Dave fan as a kid through his records as well as his numerous appearances at supper clubs like Greensboro’s Plantation, owned by Fred Koury.

“I’d memorized his stuff and even ripped him off on the air [as a local radio host],” recalled Wright. “But the triggering event was when my wife Susan gave me one of his albums for an anniversary present. I realized that I’d lost touch and listening to it after all those years brought those fond memories back. I got on the internet and found his AP obit and saw how his comeback had been cut short at age fifty-seven. I told my wife, ‘There’s a stage play in this man’s life,’ and she looked at me over her glasses and said, ‘Say what?’ [a classic Brother Dave-ism], and that’s what provided the seed.”

Wright immediately went to work on the play but knew that nothing could come of it until and unless he got permission from Gardner’s heirs. His son had died in 1997, but he tracked down his daughter Candace and her husband Stan outside Fort Worth, Texas and persuaded her to give the project her blessing.

“The thing that flipped the switch for her was when I said, ‘If we don’t do something, people are going to forget your daddy, and wouldn’t that be horrible?’ Since then she has become really supportive and we have become great friends.”

Wright finished the play on Feb. 17, 2004, exactly two years to the day from his pronouncement to his wife, and debuted it at the Paramount Theatre in Burlington later that year. Sitting in the audience that evening was Candace.

“She sat beside my wife,” said Wright, “and I could hear her laugh and cry. Susan said she squeezed her arm and said, ‘That sounds just like Daddy.’ That’s about all the payback I’ll ever need for this thing.”

The head of the JENA Company, a production and touring agency in New York, was also in the audience on opening night, and offered to help Wright take the show on the road.

“We signed a contract to tour it for five years,” said the actor/playwright/producer, “and we’ve taken the show from Jackson, Tennessee to Dover, Delaware. It’s been exclusively one-nighters in theatres and auditoriums, but we’re going to book some more sit-down shows after the Barn run. It works perfect for me because I can’t quit my day job at the Paramount.”

Wright has two more shows in the works, however, that may one day necessitate giving up the proverbial day job. He and local musician/playwright Gary Cole will debut The Fabulous Paramounts: The Oldies and Beach Musical Aug. 1 at – where else? – the Paramount in Burlington. Plus, Wright plans to mount his play Ruthie, a modernized adaptation of the Biblical Book of Ruth, next year.

As Brother Dave would say, “Glory!