Former Canebrake director passes on

Published 9:03 pm Friday, September 5, 2008

Walter Brown McCord, a longtime director of Canebrake Player Productions in Demopolis, passed away on Wednesday after suffering a heart attack. He was 75.

Memorial services will be held Monday at 10 a.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 905 Church St. in Greensboro.

His parents served in the military, and he lived in post-World War II Germany. His parents returned to the United States and lived in Ithaca, N.Y., where he studied at Cornell University. His family moved to Murray, Ky., before he ventured to New York City, where he worked with the Episcopal Diocese and Theatre Around the Corner, where he developed his skills.. He lived in New York City from the 1960s to the mid-1970s, where worked in the theater.

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“He always had a love of the theater,” said his niece, Laura McCord. “He wanted to be a clothing designer, and he went to New York to be in design. His mother always had a non-professional interest in the theater, so I guess that’s where he got that from.”

McCord moved to Greensboro in the mid-1970s to be with his parents, and brought his love of theater to western Alabama with him. He earned the Druid Arts Award for clothing design in Tuscaloosa and worked with the Canebrake Players since it began in 1981.

“At our first meeting, we were kind of discombobulated,” said Jan Wilburn. “He spoke up and said, ‘You’re doing it all wong. First, you get a director, then you go from there.’ We’ve been good ever since! That just makes sense, though, because if the director’s not happy, nobody’s happy. We would have had to go to workshops to figure out how it all works, and he had all that experience in one person.”

“He directed ‘Country Life,’ the first play we did, and we performed that at the Civic Center,” said Ann Parsons of Demopolis. “He sewed costumes, painted sets, directed, acted — it was nothing for an actor to walk onstage and have Walter sewing the costume while it was on him.”

“I met him 25 years ago at a Canebrake Players dinner,” said Brenda Packer of Demopolis. “As I listened to him talk, I said to myself, ‘I have to get to know that guy.’ He cast my then-husband as Dracula in a play, and they asked me to be a stage manager.”

Both women remembered many of the plays that McCord was involved with: “Born Yesterday,” “The Women,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Chapter 2,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Plaza Suite,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Private Lives” and “The Foxes” were some of the many works that he was involved with through the Demopolis community theater.

“He was eccentric,” Parsons said. “He loved art and actually painted our sets. He also worked with our children’s productions.”

“I worked with him on the sets a lot of times,” said Buddy Wilburn. “Sometimes, he would be dissatisfied with a set, and you would see it grow and become more beautiful with each performance.”

“I called him our Renaissance man,” Parker said. “He could make a gown out of chewing gum and bailing wire. He was a gourmet cook, and he had never-ending stories.”

McCord raised the standards for the fledgling theater group that evolved into Theatre Tuscaloosa, said longtime friend and co-worker Doug Perry.

“People were astounded that clothes could actually be made from scratch for a stage production,” Perry said, “that an ensemble could have a unified look, as opposed to ‘Does everybody have a green dress they can wear?’”

Paul K. Looney, Theatre Tuscaloosa artistic director emeritus, said he considered McCord a member of the family.

“He was one of the most talented drapers I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but Walter Brown didn’t sew, but he could drape fabric better than anyone I saw.”

“He ran with Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and that crowd in New York in the ‘60s,” said Charles Prosser. “The way he told a story, you could just sit and listen to him for hours and hours.”

McCord was a multi-talented artist who gave his talents to the Demopolis community through the theater. His productions touched many, many lives from cast members to audiences. A devotee of theater and one who gave his best for the Canebrake audiences, he will be missed when the curtain rises again.

Mark Hughes Cobb of The Tuscaloosa News contributed to this story. Photo courtesy of Charles Prosser.