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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 12:28 am

A man of the stage

DONALD E. BAILEY March 6, 1936-Nov. 9, 2016

DONALD E. BAILEY
While a high school student in Petersburg, Don Bailey performed in Forever This Land at Kelso Hollow Theatre (now Theatre in the Park in New Salem) and directed the junior class play at Petersburg’s Harris High School. Those were the first in a long list of theater credits that spanned 65 years.

My first encounter with Don was in 2007, when I joined the Mature Mob for the first time. The Mob is a group of talented performers who stage an annual revue to benefit Senior Services of Central Illinois. That year’s show, “Remembering the Harvest Moon Ball,” was the first of 10 (so far) in which I’ve been a cast member, and the eighth of nine consecutive shows Don would direct for them. At the time, of course, I wasn’t aware of Don’s extensive resume, but his enthusiasm and knowledge were unmistakable and contagious.

Don first joined the Mob in 1999, not as a director, but as an actor. He played the lead role of Cole Porter in “Red Hot and Cole.” That show was directed by another veteran of local theater, George A.M. Heroux. He recalled, “Don was not involved in the Mature Mob at the time, but I recruited him to play the lead. Throughout my ‘direction,’ Don gave me direction ideas without anyone knowing he was helping. He did it without bringing attention to himself, just to help out in a quiet way.” The next year, Don directed the first of his nine straight shows for the Mob.

It might be easier to list what Don didn’t do on stage. He was active in college, professional and community theater, appeared in documentary films and television commercials, and toured with three different road companies, in central Illinois, Chicago and elsewhere around the state. He directed 12 shows for the Muni, and played leading roles in several of their shows, including John Adams (twice) in 1776 (with his wife of nearly 60 years, Velma, playing Abigail Adams) and as Captain Andy in Showboat with William Warfield.

He also did 1776 twice for Theatre in the Park, those times as Ben Franklin, as well as Anne of Green Gables and John Brown’s Body; and returned to the scene of his first theatrical credit by directing a return engagement of Forever This Land at New Salem. In the early 1960s, when he performed at Villa Venice, a legendary Chicago nightclub, longtime Chicago columnist Irv Kupcinet named him “one of Chicago’s up-and-coming new actors.”

As with most aspiring actors, theater was his love, but not his livelihood. That went to the floral business. Don worked as a florist for some 50 years in Chicago, Carbondale, Salem and Springfield.

But there was a special place in his heart for the Mature Mob. Following his turn as Cole Porter, he directed the next nine shows. He returned to direct this year’s effort, “A Salute to Broadway,” inspired by two anniversaries, the 50th of Senior Services of Central Illinois, and the 25th of the Mob. Another, less welcome factor was the ongoing budget woes of Senior Services, aggravated by the state’s ongoing budget impasse. Among other things, it has forced the elimination of 23 positions and the imposition of furlough days.

Don saw this as an opportunity to help the organization, as well as return, one more time, to his lifelong avocation. In the program for “A Salute to Broadway,” his notes expressed his philosophy: “We hope you enjoy the show and leave with a smile on your face and a warm feeling inside. If so, we will have fulfilled our mission.” I’d say he succeeded. It was a fitting finale to a long career. I’m glad I was present for some of it.

Will Burpee of Springfield is a Mature Mobster.

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