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Play puts Johnny Mercer friend on stage

'He ate Savannah with a spoon'

POSTED: November 7, 2012 2:02 p.m.

Miriam Center knew Johnny Mercer well in the last decade of the great songwriter’s life. Both were Savannah natives, and they shared not only a deep love for the old hometown, but a rich sense of humor and a philosophically southern way of looking at the world.

“He loved having Savannah people with him,” says Center, 86. “He just loved Savannah. He ate Savannah with a spoon.”

Three years ago, for the centennial of Mercer’s birth, Center wrote a play about their friendship. Called Johnny and Me, it combined tender (and funny) memories with many of the songwriter’s best–known works.

“In the last 10 years,” says Savannah Community Theatre director Tom Coleman, “I truly have had 15 new authors bring me stuff and say ‘Please do my play.’ Miriam called me and said ‘I have this play I’ve written about Johnny Mercer — would you read it?’ I met with her and read it.”

Coleman loved the material — Center, a published novelist, had a way with words – and the show was produced in the downstairs ballroom at the Savannah Civic Center. “We ended up with about 1,200 people,” Coleman says with pride.

Center and Coleman have re–tooled the show, adding more songs and dialogue, and it makes its re–appearance this week at Muse Arts Warehouse.

It’s now called Johnny Mercer and Me. For the playwright, it’s a bit of mythbusting.

“I wrote this play because I feel that Johnny has always been talked about in Savannah rather like a plastic figure,” Center explains. “And he was such a multi–dimensional person. I knew him all the way through, and he was just so interesting — warm, and complex, and not just writing ditties. He wrote beautiful poetry.”

They met at the 1963 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles (Center’s cousin was a producer of the show). Mercer was there, with his wife Ginger, and his musical partner Henry Mancini and his wife (the writers took the Oscar for Best Song that night, for “Days of Wine and Roses”).

They were all, Center recalls, pretty drunk.

Between that night and Mercer’s death in 1976, Center and her husband were frequent traveling companions with the Mercers — they went to Great Britain together, and met up often in Los Angeles, and New York.

And on Tybee Island, where Johnny and Ginger had a getaway home.

“Ginger told me this,” says Center. “On his deathbed, when he found out that he had the brain tumor, he turned to her and said ‘Take me home.’ Those were almost his last words. She knew he meant Savannah. And so his funeral was here.”

The action in Johnny Mercer and Me takes place after Ginger’s funeral, 10 years later. The character Maxine — that’s Miriam Center — returns to the Mercer home and begins reminiscing with another friend, who’s a piano player.

“Johnny comes back from the grave and talks to her,” explains Center, “and they have wonderful moments of recollection. The piano player doesn’t know that Johnny’s there, but she does.

“There’s a lot of drama, and fun ... I’m trying to teach these boys how to curse, and they don’t want to say curse words.”

The cast includes Jeffrey Hall, Sandra Nix, Chris Chandler and Grace Tootle.

Coleman’s set is decorated with memorabilia and photographs from Center’s own collection.

If you saw the original production three years ago, be advised that it’s changed significantly. “She revamped, I revamped ..,” Coleman says. “It’s a book musical, standard, traditional.”

And it’s very Savannah.

According to the playwright: “There’s more music, and we’ve got more sadness and humor mixed in with one another. I hope.”

 

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