Longtime club pianist to give Annapolis finale

March 13, 1994|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to the Sun

When Dick Gessner and his talented friends play their final set tonight at the Annapolis Dinner Theater, the curtain will descend on the longest-running Broadway show in this area.

Mr. Gessner arrived in Annapolis in 1961, and his presence has been felt in the musical life of the city ever since. Mr. Gessner and the singers who've sought him out as an accompanist have charmed and engaged audiences in dark, smoky rooms all over town.

There was the old Red Coach on King George Street, the Maryland Inn, the Wagon Wheels, the Ox Bow, the Captain's Table, 10 glory years at Marmaduke's in Eastport, Capers, and, finally, his own saloon, Dick Gessner's Broadway Corner on U.S. 50.

Not only does Mr. Gessner define Broadway in this area, he has a lot to do with Christmas as well. For many Annapolis residents, the yuletide season doesn't begin until they've seen the Dick Gessner-Rick Wade version of "A Christmas Carol," performed by the Colonial Players.

But the 64-year-old entertainer has decided that a change of venue is in order, and he'll be taking his collection of scores with him to Florida on June 1. Mr. Gessner already has gotten someone to manage him in the Sunshine State, and bookings are in the offing.

So for one last time tonight, Annapolis audiences will have the opportunity to join Mr. Gessner "At the Fair!" of Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and the other immortals of the American musical stage.

"I've been looking all over this area for a place of my own and I haven't been able to find one," Mr. Gessner explains. "So I thought, why not go south? Everybody talks about it, but I really have a chance to do it, so why not give it a try?"

He is unclear about his ultimate destination -- Orlando and Palm Beach pop up in conversation -- but the plan is to establish himself with Florida audiences, then eventually buy his own club.

"I'm excited, but it's bitter sweet excitement," he said. "There have been a lot of sleepless nights. It's like leaving family behind."

That's the key to Mr. Gessner's success, for an evening with him is as much a reunion with old friends and colleagues as it is a supper club performance.

There's a camaraderie among local actors, and it's long been suspected that Mr. Gessner's presence has done much to develop that admirable spirit.

For the Gessner regulars -- performers and audience alike -- familiarity has bred hundreds of close-knit musical experiences. When show-biz mezzo-soprano Tere Berry began singing "Ring Them Bells" at the dinner theater last Sunday night, the faithful all over the room pulled keys from their pockets so they could jingle them at the appropriate moments.

"Everybody who gets up to sing has their own story with Dick," says Maury O'Connor, who has been singing with Mr. Gessner every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night for the past year and a half.

"I was doing 'Guys and Dolls,' when a friend brought me to see Dick at Marmaduke's," recalls Ms. Berry. "I've been singing with him ever since for the past 15 years."

Members of the audience sound a similar theme.

"I've come to see him once every few weeks ever since the Marmaduke's days," says Sue Skinner of Annapolis. "Now we take our son with us so he knows how special this all is. We're really going to miss Dick and all the talent."

Last Sunday, there was the rubber-faced David Reynolds impersonating the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in "If I Only had a Brain."

Shirley Gershman, the mother of lyricist Howard Ashman, comes regularly to sing her late son's hits from "Beauty and the Beast" and beams proudly as a group of young entertainers performs "Be Our Guest."

Anita Patton, the star of the Annapolis Dinner Theater's "They're Playing Our Song," is on hand to deliver "I Don't Know How To Love Him" from "Jesus Christ, Superstar."

In the middle of it is Mr. Gessner: part ringmaster, part proud uncle and all business at the piano.

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