A Modern-day Minstrel Settles Down In Annapolis

January 30, 1991|By Michael R. Driscoll | Michael R. Driscoll,Staff writer

After 30 years of wandering the county, Dick Gessner's "Traveling Road Show and Unpaid Unofficial Repertory Company and One-Man Piano Orchestra" has finally found a home.

"I just love it," said Gessner, "It's something I've wanted for years and years. I've a wonderful partner (John Preece) and you can quote me on that. The people from Caper's (his former venue) backed me on this and helped me get it started. They were more than wonderful. I love it, and I think it's going towork."

Open since early January, Dick Gessner's Broadway Corner is on the way to the Bay Bridge at 71 Revell Highway, across from the Annapolis Terrace Hotel. The place is open from 6:30 p.m. (with music starting at 8 p.m.) to 1:30 a.m., Thursdays through Saturdays.

And it's there, in a far corner of the room, surrounded by Broadway memorabilia and not nearly enough tables for his huge family of friends and fans, that Gessner holds court.

Gessner's gravelly, yet surprisingly agile and expressive voice is backed by smoothly competent piano workand a mental "data base" of Broadway and other popular music. It's all served up in a manner that makes instant friends of any stranger.

A devoted coterie of friends likes to sing along with him, either at their tables or standing next to him at the microphone.

"I always term it as kind of like an adult 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,' withall the props they bring," said Gessner's partner, John Preece. "When Dick strikes a chord, he won't say anything, and people will know to stand up to dance, or he'll hit a certain part of music and everybody knows the chorus part to them. It's kind of a cult feature."

Ina way, Gessner has come full circle.

He last performed in that club about 10 years ago, when it was known as the Captain's Table. Thenhe moved on to Baltimore, Marmaduke's Pub in Eastport, and most recently the just-closed Caper's, also on Revell Highway.

After Caper's closed, Gessner and Preece (who will also step up to the microphonefrom time to time), founded their new club, previously known as Whispers, and later Garfield's before closing several years ago.

"WhenI realized there were going to be some changes at Capers, and that Dick was probably not going to have a place to play, Dick and I talkedabout trying to get together and finding a place for him to have a permanent home, instead of moving around so much from place to place,"Preece said.

"It's a good business, and there's a definite crowd,so there'd be a definite amount of money coming in every week there," he continued. "The idea was to find a place that was going to fit into our budget and be worth doing."

Several people have become almost featured attractions in their own right, so long as they have Gessner as their sideman. One popular part of the show is Tere Berry, a professional actress turned mortgage banker who has been a fan since Gessner's Marmaduke's days about 15 years ago.

Her explanation forthe Gessner phenomenon was simple: "I truly believe it's his personality and the way he is with people. And he's probably the best accompaniest I've had -- ever. He's so wonderful and so talented, that there's no one like him. It's a shame that he's not further than where heis now, because he should be. But this is finally his place, and this is where he wants to be."

Another of his ad hoc performers is John Gilbert, the county's answer to Mel Blanc.

Over the course of an evening, Gilbert is called to the microphone to sing and tell jokes, using his own voice and others, such as Ed Sullivan, Jimmy Carter, Dean Martin or Art Carney's famous character Ed Norton from the classic "Honeymooners" TV series.

As he performed a song in the Nortoncharacter, about the joys of working in the sewer, a number of toy shovels were brandished by members of the audience.

Gilbert arrivedin the area from Washington about three years ago, when "I happen tosee an ad in the paper from the time he was over at Marmaduke's about joining local performers to see the best of Broadway, and I thought, 'Gee, this looks different.' "

After chatting with Gessner during the course of the evening, Gilbert, who had limited his performances to family and friends, said that he was persuaded to do a number. He has been part of the furniture ever since.

Gilbert described thetypical Gessner audience as "a group of good friends, of all ages. Retirees to midshipmen, even teen-agers. There was this 14-year-old girl who came in here last week, beautiful voice. She's here twice now."

There was another youngster that night who performed "I Can't Say No."

Gilbert recalled that when she came to the lyric "I've known what's right and wrong since I was 10," Gessner broke in to ask herhow old she was.

"Ten," she replied.

Another generation of Gessner fans is born.

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