Preview: It's a wonderful tribute to Jimmy Stewart
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When Chris Collins takes on the persona of Jimmy Stewart on stage, as he will Sunday at the Cabaret at Theater Square, he refers to the actor as "Mr. Stewart" to show respect.
"It's not my show," Mr. Collins said. "It's Mr. Stewart's show. These are the characters he brought to life. It's his legacy."
That would be quite a legacy. In addition to acting in 80 films, Stewart flew more than 20 missions during World War II and tried to live an ordinary life, volunteering with Boy Scouts, raising a garden and a stable family and serving as a church deacon, all while living in Beverly Hills.
Mr. Collins, a pharmaceutical representative in his day job, lives in Ebensburg, close to the town of Indiana, where Stewart grew up doing chores in his father's hardware store. It is common lore that Stewart's father told him, "If that acting thing doesn't work out, Jimmy, there's always a place for you here in the hardware store."
In 1997, shortly after Stewart died, Mr. Collins found a way to express his admiration by creating a performance based on one of his favorite Stewart films, "It's a Wonderful Life."
"I wanted to present the essence of the film in a 20-minute performance," he said.
For "Thank You, Jimmy Stewart!," he whittled it down and added pieces from two other films, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Harvey."
His first performance was at a nearby bed and breakfast, the Dill Weed. The intimate setting seemed to suit the play, and Mr. Collins went on to do many performances at the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, and throughout the area.
"How many times do we actually look each other in the eye and tell stories to one another?" he said. "It's becoming lost. We text, we email, and we don't have that direct communication."
In the performance, Mr. Collins transitions easily among three characters -- George Bailey, Clarence and Mr. Potter -- then slips into Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey."
"Harvey and I, we go into a bar, and soon we have friends. No one brings anything small into a bar."
Mr. Collins likes the role of Mr. Smith, too. "That's where you get to fight for the lost cause."
With the performances, Mr. Collins advances his own cause; proceeds from the show will benefit the Jimmy Stewart Museum. Its director, Tim Harley, is grateful.
"We are very fortunate indeed, to have, in Chris, not only a great friend and supporter of the museum and its mission, but also a much-loved actor who brings Stewart alive in his touching and meaningful vignettes."
Mr. Collins was encouraged by the support of the Cultural Trust when he made the booking here in Pittsburgh. He began to think even bigger.
"Something in my head said: 'Why not try Carnegie Hall in New York? Give it a shot!' ... So many of our ancestors in Western Pennsylvania worked in the mills and mines, and that is where [Andrew] Carnegie amassed his fortunes that allowed him to build that music hall in the first place. So it seems like a part of our heritage is waiting for us in that hall. It feels like magic. In this world, you've got to take a chance."
Mr. Collins has secured a booking at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 23. After all, it is a wonderful life.
First Published November 9, 2012 12:00 am