It seems impossible, but 30 years – yes, THIRTY YEARS – have passed since a galaxy of show business stars set Danville aglow.
Many will never forget May 23, 1988. That’s when Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Van Dyke, Gene Hackman, Bobby Short and Donald O’Connor returned to their hometown for two benefits to save the Fischer Theater.
It was the first, and last, time that all five appeared at one event. A press conference, and a black-tie reception that drew 350 at $1,000 per ticket, were at the stately Hegeler mansion on Vermilion Street. Later, 1,500 fans paid $15 each to be part of a raucous love-in at the Civic Center.
Short, O’Connor and Jerry Van Dyke have since died. But the dream of a restored Fischer lives on … thanks to some of the most devoted, selfless believers the world has ever seen.
A few highlights from 30 years ago:
• “Danville has about the same population now as it did years ago. Every time a baby is born, some guy leaves town,” joked Dick Van Dyke, star of movies and the hit “Dick Van Dyke Show.”
• “Every time I come to Danville and see Danville High School, I get this terrible feeling in my stomach,” he said, “because the test is tomorrow and I haven’t cracked a book. I’m in love with Nancy Frankenberger, I’ve got the worst case of acne in medical history, and I’m the only one who doesn’t have a car.”
• “There’s Dorothy Sturm!,” comedian and TV star Jerry Van Dyke yelled to a former teacher from the Civic Center stage. “Dorothy, you flunked me in Spanish!”
• “Jerry was the only guy who they wouldn’t let swim in the Vermilion River,” wise-cracked O’Connor – actor, dancer and lifelong trouper.
• When asked by a reporter what advice he’d give aspiring actors, O’Connor quipped, “I would tell them that the business is far, far too crowded. I’d recommend that they not get into it.”
• “We were all surprised when this thing finally came off. I expected a call saying that only eight people were going to show up,” said Hackman, a former Fischer Theater usher who won the Best Actor Oscar for “The French Connection.”
The Civic Center audience howled with the men recalled school days, Green Street, Lil’s Jockey Club, the Top Hat, Garfield School, WDAN and former teachers Mary Miller, Kathryn Randolph, Evelyn Driver, Helen Wolfe and Willa Freeland.
Hackman led a hilarious “Let’s Do the Twist” contest. Dick Van Dyke did a mock striptease routine. And Bobby Short — pianist, singer and star of New York’s ritzy Café Carlyle — led a driving rendition of the Danville High School fight song.
“Danville is a magic town, and it always will be,” Dick Van Dyke said.
“My fondest memories are of my life in Danville,” said brother Jerry.
“This really was my home,” O’Connor said.
“Danville is a very special town,” Short said. “I was very lucky to have been born here.”
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at email@example.com.