“There are so many stories, I can’t remember them all.”
There was a pause as Triad City Beat Publisher Allen Broach tried to recall a specific memory from the 30 years of his friendship with Stephen Gee, founder of Corson Productions, eventual managing and artistic director of the Broach Theatre Company and a Triad theatrical mainstay who passed away on the morning of May 6.
Eventually, Broach couldn’t place his finger on one moment, claiming there were just too many.
Which, it turns out, is appropriate when remembering Gee, a man with as many roles in life as on Broach’s stage, from running the children’s theater program to combing through mainstage production scripts, from cleaning dressing rooms to caring for the two resident theater cats.
“He was larger than life,” Lisa Dames, a former actor with the Broach company, said.
“But one of the biggest hearts, and so incredibly talented.”
Two weeks ago at a reunion party for the theater, Broach remembers a slight damper on the evening because of Gee’s absence.
“We knew he wouldn’t last long,” he said.
Shoulder and spine pain in March caused Gee to check in to the hospital, where doctors found masses in his spine, lungs, pancreas, and kidneys, according to Camilla Millican, who acted alongside Gee with the Touring Theatre of North Carolina. He was diagnosed with cancer in late March, and his decline was rapid.
Philip Powell, a “Broacher” off and on since 1997, got the call to fill in for Gee in the spring 2016 production of Dr. Claribel, Ms. Etta and the Brothers Cone with the Touring Theatre.
Powell knew then just how serious his illness was.
“When it comes to plays,” Powell said, quoting an actor’s platitude, “‘When you’re sick, you show up; when you’re dead, you call.’” He added with a dampened laugh, “Now, that’s inappropriate [to say].”
Up to the end, Gee took that platitude seriously as a vocational theater man, honing and nurturing his craft in the Triad for a majority of his life.
He didn’t go at it alone, though. He founded Corson Productions with his life partner, Hall Parrish, a fellow actor and director who eventually ran the Broach Theatre with Gee through its 25-year lifespan.
“It is almost impossible to talk about Stephen without talking about Hall Parrish,” Powell said.
“They were a unit, a team.”
Powell and Dames recall that Parrish helmed most mainstage productions while Gee preferred the Ragamuffin children’s theater, putting on shows like The Princess and the Pea.
Not only did their shop snag the title of longest-running professional company in downtown Greensboro, the team also won the Berilla Kerr Award for Outstanding Contribution to Contemporary American Theatre — a big-city recognition in what was even more of a small town in the ’80s and ’90s.
Which is why it’s just as impossible to talk about the impact Gee’s life had on the rise of the downtown theater community without talking about the beginnings of the Broach Theatre.
Allen Broach, then the principal at Broach & Co. advertising agency, was approached by Gee and Parrish in 1987. They were looking for rehearsal space for their new theater company and had their eye on 520 S. Elm St., Broach’s agency headquarters and an ex-Salvation Army mission. Broach, a theater lover, lent them the auditorium space; after an expensive run at the Town Hall theater, in which “they lost their butts,” according to Broach, they made their partnership more permanent.
Thirty years, hundreds of productions and several competing downtown theaters later, it’s fair to proclaim that relationship a success.
“They were brave, visionary men, spitting in the face of the odds stacked against them,” Powell said in a Facebook post.
Later over the phone, Powell recalled Greensboro’s theater scene of yore, before Elm Street was given attention.
“There was no thriving industry,” said Powell.
“Let me put it this way: You had no problem finding parking.”
Among other since-bygone institutions, Dames recalls a McDonald’s near the theater that Broachers lovingly referred to as the “Crack-Donalds.” She said naïve theater-goers with preconceived notions of the neighborhood would often call the box office in advance to double-check that they would be “safe” down on that side of town.
It was a “safe haven” for all scrappy lovers of the arts, Dames said.
“[Gee and Parrish] used to put up actors in their second-floor guest bedroom, and hosted Thanksgiving at their house every year for all us orphans who didn’t have family in town,” she said.
Even though it was sold to the Community Theatre of Greensboro in January 2012, the Broach’s legacy lives on in its actors and in its loyal audiences — all of whom fondly recall what were colloquially referred to as the now-legendary comedic “Tuna Shows,” in which Parrish and Gee acted out a legion of characters in a pretend Texas town.
“If we just did that, we’d sell out every night,” Broach speculated.
And they often did. Powell said the pooling together of Parrish and Gee’s talents with Broach’s resources created the foundation for other theaters to follow suit in the ghostlike downtown area.
“They proved it could be done,” he said.
Toward the last few years of his life, Gee suffered a hard blow when he lost Parrish to cancer in 2008.
“When Hall passed away, he was heartbroken,” Dames said. “He continued as best he could.”
Gee’s sister was present last week when he passed away. According to Dames, the last words he said were, “Hey, baby.”
“That’s what he used to say to Hall whenever he’d walk into a room,” she said.
Powell said Gee became sober in the last few years of his life and helped others with their addiction, apparently while working on a one-man show about his experience with alcoholism and his journey toward recovery. The file is on his computer somewhere, and Broach hopes to get permission to access it and see how much is left to write.
“There are enough of us who know him,” Broach said. “We want to finish the show and put it on the road in honor of him.”
Friends and colleagues alike concurred that Gee’s legacy will continue to live on in the thriving theater scene in downtown Greensboro.
“At one point in time, this would’ve been a crazy idea,” Powell said. “But these were just simple guys who wanted to do theater, found the space, and started doing it. Nobody was telling them it was silly.”
Gee’s service will be held at All Saints Episcopal Church, 4211 Wayne Road, Greensboro, at 2 p.m. on May 21.