Rejoice! Brother Dave revival comes to town

Published 12:11 am Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In the late 1950s and ’60s, comedy was going through a metamorphosis as the nation itself was moving from the family-friendly ‘50s into the more liberal, war-torn ‘60s.

Among those making a name for themselves was Brother Dave Gardner, a native of Jackson, Tenn., whose Southern humor has been described as “Southern cool, not hayseed or cornpone,” calling him “the Lenny Bruce without the obscenities.”

Gardner passed away in 1983, but his “rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption” story will be told on the Demopolis stage in “Rejoice, Dear Hearts! An Evening with Brother Dave Gardner.” The one-man performance by David Wright will be shown on Sunday, March 29, at 3 p.m. at the Old School theater at the corner of Main Avenue and Pettus Street. Admission is $10.

“We are so happy to be coming to Demopolis!” Wright said. “We are just beaming, smiling, like unto a ’possum!”

A native of North Carolina, Wright was a longtime fan of Gardner’s comedy, having heard his routines when he was a youngster.

“I was a huge fan as a teen,” he said. “My best friend and I used to sneak into his brother’s room while he was away at college and slap these Brother Dave albums on the old Silvertone record player. I didn’t understand all of Dave’s references and the sophistication of his humor, but I knew if there was a guy who could make people laugh that long, that loud and enjoy himself as much as it came through on the albums, that he must be pretty special.”

Wright did morning shows on the radio for 20 of his 29 years behind the mike, calling himself “Brother Dave” and using catch-phrases made popular by Gardner, such as “Oh, rejoice!”

“My wife and I were married on Valentine’s Day,” he said. “So, we gave each other a nice present for our anniversary, and kind of a silly, nutty present for Valentine’s. In 2002, knowing that I was a huge Brother Dave fan, she got me a copy of ‘Rejoice, Dear Hearts,’ his first album, on E-Bay.

“All of those wonderful memories came back, and I looked up Brother Dave on the Internet, and just from his Associate Press obituary, I walked into the breakfast room and told my wife, ‘Sweetheart, there is a play in this man’s life, and I am going to write it, and I am going to do it.”

He immediately got on the phone and contacted Gardner’s family to get their blessing for him to show Gardner’s life story on stage.

“They were very protective of Dave’s image and memory,” Wright said. “Finally, I told them, ‘Look, if somebody doesn’t do this, there is a real danger that people are going to forget Brother Dave, and that would be terrible.’ They approved, and flooded me with stuff, and two years to the day after that, I typed the words ‘End of Play.”

Wright was able to put the show together with the help of Gardner contemporary, friend and fan Andy Griffith, who helped provide research for the production. The show premiered in 2004 in Burlington, Vt., to rave reviews, and in 2006, the show opened in Gardner’s hometown of Jackson, Tenn., opening the national tour.

“This is not just me standing up there and doing two hours of Dave’s routines,” Wright said. “We interweave his amazing rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption story. He had an unbelievable life, and the real story is this constant struggle between his Christian upbringing and his desire to be the star in show biz.

“The end of the show is very redemptive and very heartwarming, and it’s all true! That’s one thing his family said is, ‘If you’re going to tell the story, tell it all!’ If you’ve never heard of Brother Dave Gardner, you’d still want to see the show because of the human story behind it.”

“Rejoice, Dear Hearts! An Evening with Brother Dave Gardner” is making a pass through the South, playing in Talladega and Cedartown, Ga., before coming to Demopolis, then will move on to Sheffield. The tour will finish in Baton Rouge, La.

“Dave helped launch that whole comedy album thing,” Wright said. “He was Billboard magazine’s Comedian of the Year, he was on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Jack Paar more than 50 times.”

The performance is sponsored by the Two Rivers Arts Council.

“We do performances like this, community performances for entertainment, bringing the community together,” said Council president Carolyn Cowling. “We plan to sponsor the high school musical performance this year. Last year, we did a juried art show, the artist showcase we do in the fall. We try to sponsor something every two or three months.

“We invite the community to join, and with their membership, they get tickets to everything.”

For information about joining the Two Rivers Arts Council, write to the Two Rivers Arts Council at P.O. Box 1187, Demopolis, AL 36732. Other programs on the Arts Council’s schedule include an artists showcase on Sept. 13, the Mobile Symphony Orchestra and the “Sax in the City” concerts in October.