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Broach: The subject

by Brian Clarey

In 1969, in the jungles of Vietnam, life was cheap.

Allen Broach didn’t know that when he was drafted into the US Army in December 1968, just one day after he finished up his associates degree at Kings College in Charlotte, but he figured it out pretty quick once he got in country and the bullets began to fly.

On just his fifth day at war, out on patrol, Sgt. Broach saw one of his platoon get cut off at the knees by a grenade, another firing his pistol with his right hand while his left dangled from the wrist by a few tendons and some skin. During the firefight, someone had crept up and slit the radio operator’s throat.

After that one, he thought to himself, I’m going to die before I get home.

The idea terrified him, yet it was also liberating, turning the fear of death into an inescapable certainty, palpable, close enough to taste.

It didn’t make him reckless — the bamboo stands and rice paddies, he learned, left no margin for error. It made him fearless. Big difference.

So Broach didn’t feel fear, not exactly, when he and a medic, on a recon mission in the thick of the jungle, began taking fire from the AK-47 of a Vietcong trooper stationed in a hole in the ground.

They fired back, and when the enemy retreated further into the hole, they lobbed a few grenades down there. And then, even though he wasn’t technically supposed to, Broach entered the tunnel with a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other.

He was smaller then, all lean musculature and square jaw. His hairline was already starting to go.

The tunnel opened into an underground bunker, tight and cramped. Broach poked around looking for the shooter’s body, wary of booby traps. Sometimes the VC would rig grenades to go off at the slightest disturbance. Sometimes they’d nail poisonous snakes to the wall, which would strike out at anything that moved past.

He found nothing save for another hole, this one to the rear of the bunker, a three-foot drop. The medic held Broach’s ankles while he scoped out the second leg of the tunnel. It was tight, maybe a couple feet in diameter. Broach dropped in.

Goddammit, he thought to himself, I know he’s down here.

He crawled on elbows and knees, sloping deeper into the earth, shining his flashlight around every corner to draw enemy fire. At the end of the tunnel, he found a trap door above him. There was no turning back.

Broach pushed on the door and it slammed open. Immediately the barrel of an AK-47 dropped down. He had found his man.

The enemy fired off three rounds before his gun jammed. But it was enough. Broach took one in the left arm, and the powder burns on his face would leave white freckles for months afterwards.

Broach furiously backtracked , and when he got up to the surface, after vomiting in the trees, he fixed 10 sticks of C-4 explosive and went back in the tunnel to set the charges.

As the medivac chopper airlifted him out, his head reeling from concussion, shrapnel wedged in his arm, he saw a section of the jungle floor rise and fall — bloop! — when the C-4 went off.

And that is how Allen Broach got his first Purple Heart.

There would be another before his tour in Vietnam ended, and also a couple Bronze Stars. He was glad when it was over.

“All along I was thinking that there’s got to be some reason I lived through that,” he says now. “I had so many chances to be killed. I still don’t know what it is — maybe some day I’ll find out.”

Vietnam was a long time ago, a different life. He’s accumulated gravitas since then — as a businessman, as an activist, as a patron of the arts — and though he’s still trim and athletic, the hair at his temples has gone white, as have the fringes of his Van Dyke beard. He’s almost 65 years old, and he’s still adding layers to the story of his life.

He’s up in his offices above the Broach Theatre, the building he bought in 1985 for $145,000 and which he’s slated to sell in January to the Community Theatre of Greensboro for considerably more than that. The sale doesn’t mean the end of the Broach Theatre Company, which will still perform a full season on the stage — Ira Levin’s Deathtrap runs through Nov. 5 — and it doesn’t mean the end of Broach’s marketing and communications company, Broach & Co., which he’s been running since 1983.

But the building itself… that’s another flashpoint in Allen Broach’s story.

When Broach bought the building at 520 S. Elm St., it was at the end of its life as a Salvation Army sanctuary, with a stage for preaching and a gymnasium in the back where a young Howard Coble perfected his layup technique way back in the day. He fashioned a photography studio in the gym for commercial shoots and moved his business into the offices upstairs, where he would eventually win nearly 100 ADDY Awards, the American Advertising Association’s highest accolade.

It wasn’t long after that Stephen Gee, Hall Parrish and David Bell came around, asking if they could use the stage to rehearse their fledgling theater company’s upcoming production of Veronica’s Room, starring seasoned veteran of the stage Jane Bushway.

“I don’t know how they found out about the stage,” Broach remembers.

After a disastrous run at the city’s Town Hall Theatre, he let the guys move into his space.

“[The place] was in rugged shape,” Broach says.

“No heat or air, uncomfortable wooden chairs. Both restrooms were one-holers, so intermission would take forever.”

He says Gee, Parrish and Bell recruited Betty Cone to help upgrade the sound and light systems, and then launched their new artistic venture. They, Broach says, were the ones who named it after him.

In addition to a modest rent, Broach says, “they would pay me 5 percent of the profit for each play. To date I’ve gotten just over $500.”

This makes Allen Broach laugh. “If I had any sense, I would have made it into a restaurant or retail space,” he says.

But everyone who knows Broach knows that isn’t his style.

Allen Broach fell into the arts quite by accident.

It was 1963. Broach was 16, and during homeroom at Wilkes County Central High School, he found out about the Governor’s School of North Carolina, a new initiative by then-Gov. Terry Sanford that would cull “intellectually gifted” high school students from all over the state and immerse them in a six-week summer program under a variety of disciplines.

Broach remembers thinking: A free summer away from home? Why not?

He was accepted, and on a whim he chose the theater concentration — he says he knew he didn’t want to do math or science. He prepared a five-minute monologue, “Something students. He studied philosophy.

“What 16-year-old from Wilkes County had ever taken philosophy?” he asks now.

The experience led him again to the stage: a role in the chorus in a North Wilkesboro production of Camelot and the role of Enoch Snow, the second male lead in Carousel.

He wouldn’t take the stage again for another 34 years, in a Broach Theatre staging of Love Letters, in which he read with Camilla Millican. It was a masterful performance indeed, considering that Broach hasn’t been interested in women in a long time.

For the record: Broach was married when he left for Vietnam. He has two grown sons and three grandsons. But he realized shortly after he returned from service that he was not living the way he was meant to. He’s hesitant to talk about the circumstances of his coming out, but he freely shares the details of his current life as a gay man.

“Growing up in North Wilkesboro, there were three town queens,” he remembers. “I wasn’t like them. I had an attraction to men, but I thought everyone had that. I never really thought about it. I had no role models. But from the time it dawned on me, I determined that I was gonna be open and out and a role model. [Some of] these kids out there are gay. They start out that way.

“I don’t make an issue of it,” he continues. “I’m honest about it. I don’t necessarily lead in with it. Most of us are just regular, normal people.”

Bob Weston, Broach’s partner of 15 years, calls him “a natural leader,” saying, “He does what needs to be done.”

“He definitely gives back to this community, more so than I was ever exposed to growing up,” Weston says. “I think he’s an inspiration from that standpoint, because he does give from his heart.”

Among his various business interests, Broach devotes his time and money to humanitarian and artistic causes across the state. The list of boards he has sat on and causes he’s endorsed is long: the United Way; Preservation Greensboro; One Step Further Greensboro, which provides sentencing options, life skills and mediation for those who have been convicted of crimes; and ARC of the Triad, which supports the mentally handicapped, a cause close to his heart because his sister, Beverly, was born with cognitive impairment.

He is also active in groups that support LGBT issues: the Green Party, which raised funds for the Triad Health Project’s about a dog,” he says, and then they asked him why he wanted to pursue acting.

And he remembers this with the same clarity he remembers some of his more harrowing experiences in Vietnam.

“I said, ‘That is a very important aspect of life, to know how to act in front of people. But I’ll tell you right now, I’m not gonna starve in New York to be an actor.’” Nevertheless, he landed a role in the school’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and then worked sound for Twelfth Night. And his education didn’t end outside the theater.

It was his first time away from home by himself. Because his high school didn’t integrate for another three years, it was the first time he had ever shared a classroom with black nti-AIDS campaign before it morphed into Guilford Green; and the Human Rights Campaign of North Carolina and the Triad Equality Alliance, which fight for LGBT rights.

This year he’s working on Wayne Abraham’s campaign for city council at large, and he’s gearing up for the May 2012 North Carolina primary election, which will include a referendum on the Defense of Marriage Act, which will define marriage in the state as between one man and one woman, as well as dissolve existing civil unions and domestic partnerships.

“The last poll I heard about, 59 percent across the board were in favor of legalizing gay marriage,” he says, “but most of them won’t vote.”

As the vote comes during the presidential primary, turnout heavily favors Republicans, some of whom actively campaign for restricting the rights of our gay citizens.

Broach, the old soldier, is braced for a fight. “One thing I’ve said all along,” he says, “for us to make people understand that we’re just plain old people it’s got to be one on one. People I know in business who in the past would have died to even know gay people, they see me and Bob, and they really don’t care.

“Marching,” he continues, “won’t work.” But before then, he’ll close on the South Elm Street building, ease up a bit in business, trust his properties to his son and see what life is like in a lower gear.

He turns 65 on Jan. 15. He plans to be Cozumel by then, in SCUBA gear, with Bob.

“I think he’s ready for retirement,” Weston says, “but knowing him it’s not gonna last real long.”

Broach the ad man knows he’s not quite out of the game yet.

“After 40 years in the business, I know some things that younger people may not know,” he says. “And I still have a pretty good creative ability.”

And Broach, who once chased an enemy combatant into a hole in the ground, is not afraid to get things done.

There’s another story about Allen Broach, this one going back to 1990, when Madonna’s Express Yourself tour was coming through the south of France; a friend had won tickets and invited Broach to come along. The only catch was that he needed to secure a current passport by noon the next day.

“I called [Rep.] Howard Coble’s office,” he says, “and I flew to the passport office in [Washington] DC the next day.”

It’s a telling footnote in an interesting life.