Memphis actor owns FDR role at Playhouse on Square

Fred Harpell stands with a set piece from a long-ago production in the studio space at Evergreen Theatre, where he is facilities manager. Harpell is performing as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Playhouse on the Square's production of "Annie." It's his ninth time doing the role.

Photo by Jon W. Sparks

Fred Harpell stands with a set piece from a long-ago production in the studio space at Evergreen Theatre, where he is facilities manager. Harpell is performing as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Playhouse on the Square's production of "Annie." It's his ninth time doing the role.

Not many actors get a signature role, one that can sometimes overwhelm the other work they do.

William Shatner's prolific career hasn't diminished the fact that he'll always be Captain Kirk from "Star Trek."

Locally, a few actors reprise roles frequently. Barry Fuller just did Scrooge again in "A Christmas Carol" for the umpteenth time at Theatre Memphis. It's more than a dozen, but Fuller's not quite sure.

Over at Playhouse on the Square, Fred Harpell is doing his ninth rendition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in "Annie" since 2000. That's how many times either "Annie" or "Annie Warbucks" has been presented in the area, and Harpell has been FDR in every one of them — except the rival production earlier this month at DeSoto Family Theatre.

Fred Harpell says he doesn't see much of a resemblance between himself and FDR, but a pince-nez, a cigarette holder and a hat help him get into character.

Fred Harpell says he doesn't see much of a resemblance between himself and FDR, but a pince-nez, a cigarette holder and a hat help him get into character.

"I saw an audition notice for 'Annie Warbucks' at Germantown Community Theatre that was being directed by Keith Salter," Harpell said, remembering his first foray into presidential theatrics. "Keith said I was the only one at the audition who didn't have a Southern accent."

The 71-year-old Harpell certainly bears a resemblance to the 32nd president, although he doesn't really think so.

"I think people visualize FDR as looking like me," he said. "People see pictures of FDR and say 'Hey, it's you!' I don't see it at all, but he is easy — you put on a pince-nez, put a cigarette holder in your mouth, put a hat on,

grin; and there you are: You're Roosevelt."He loves doing the role and feels he's gotten better over the years. And it's not always on stage. A few years ago, he and his wife Dorothy visited the FDR Memorial in Washington, which has the president's speeches carved in granite on the walls. "I was walking through and reading them in my Roosevelt voice: 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!' My wife was getting embarrassed."

Harpell has essayed other roles and has done behind-the-scenes work on several productions. But performing has not been a lifelong pursuit.

The New York-born Harpell has always loved movies and theater. He and Dorothy frequently went to plays in New York and later in Los Angeles. But he didn't have time to participate in community theater — he worked with inventory systems for Flying Tigers, and the Harpells had growing children. But when FedEx bought Flying Tigers in 1988, they moved to Memphis, and before long with the kids grown, he had more time available.

It was in 1999 that a co-worker told him people were needed to populate the stage in the Theatre Memphis production of "The Lark." He went there and was given a monk's costume and some things to do by director Joanne Malin. That was the acting bug that bit him. It was in that production of Lillian Hellman's tale of Joan of Arc that Harpell met some of the luminaries of Memphis theater who inspired him: Bennett Wood, John Rone, Tom Ford, Brent Davis, Pamela Poletti and Ron Gordon.

Larger roles followed, and he also started pitching in with stage managing and assistant directing. He's worked several times with his friend Marler Stone, who has acted in and directed numerous productions.

"The man has wonderful instincts," says Stone, who directed "The Boys Next Door" early this year at Germantown Community Theatre. "I asked him to come out twice to sit through rehearsals and tell me what he saw wrong. Fred will see something anachronistic on the set, such as a light that doesn't come up right."

It's not just an eye for detail, Stone says, but also Harpell's vast appreciation and love of film and theater. "I'm always looking for answers, and Fred's a fount of knowledge. It's a good collaboration. When we work together, we're like pigs in mud."

Harpell retired from FedEx in 2003, but in recent years has been working as facilities manager at TheatreWorks and the Evergreen Theatre. The spaces serve performing arts groups such as Project: Motion, FreakEngine, Memphis Black Arts Alliance, Voices of the South and New Moon Theatre Company.

He is plenty busy as both venues are 100 percent booked. The buildings are owned by Circuit Playhouse Inc., the parent organization for Playhouse on the Square and Circuit Playhouse. TheatreWorks is a nonprofit that leases the buildings and rents space to the various groups. "They pay the rent and leave the place they way they found it," Harpell says.

Harpell says things were tight financially for a while, but TheatreWorks raised the rent about a year and a half ago, and it has gotten support from donations and grants from the Jeniam Foundation and ArtsMemphis. "We're not making money, but we're comfortable," he says.

Harpell finds enormous satisfaction in making suitable spaces available to performers. "To me, entertainment is the key to world peace. I remember seeing 'Singin' in the Rain' at the movies, and the world needs more 'Singin' in the Rain.'"

Almost certainly, someone will stage another production of "Annie" or "Annie Warbucks" around here before long, and it's a good bet that Harpell will pull out his FDR persona once again.

"I've been in some great shows — how lucky could one person be? But I have always wanted to be Curly in 'Oklahoma!'," he says with a grin. "Think I'll make it?"

'Annie'

Closes Sunday at Playhouse on the Square. Performances at 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: Pay-what-you-can Friday. Otherwise, it's $40 Friday-Saturday, $35 Sunday; $22 senior citizens, students, military; $15 children under 18. Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Call 901-726-4656. playhouseonthesquare.org

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