Celebrating the stars, far off and at home8/10/2016
Cloris Leachman may be a hometown girl made good, but she hasn’t often come home. Now 90, she prefers retirement Hollywood-style, with a trophy room full of awards — including a record eight Emmys.
Yet when John Busbee, the man behind “The Culture Buzz” on KFMG, called the West Coast to ask if her name could be used for a new theater award in Des Moines, the woman herself came to the phone.
“The answer is ‘yes,’ ” she declared.
So Des Moines now has its Cloris Awards for Excellence in Theater Arts, judged by Busbee and other knowledgeable theater people, now in its second year. As in 2015, the ceremony will be held at the end of August and will salute work ranging from lighting to acting. This year, however, will feature a very special guest — the namesake star herself.
“Ms. Leachman will attend,” confirms Busbee, happily. “Arrangements are all in place, for and her entourage.”
Details of her participation, naturally, are still getting worked out. The ceremony has a lot to cover besides getting the woman up for a wave and a smile — especially a smile like Leachman’s, which is still high-intensity. As before, the night will have music, two hosts and multiple presenters. In addition to the 13 categories honored last year (Best Play went to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Repertory Theater of Iowa), the latest round includes two new ones in “Family Theater.”
“We want to celebrate the effort that Des Moines makes in getting young people into theater,” explains Busbee. “We want to reward the best work done with the sort of play to which someone would bring their grandchild.”
But then, seeing Leachman back on a local stage for the first time since she graduated Drake — that too seems like something for the grandchildren.
Actually, the city’s busy theater scene has long included another form of recognition. For decades now, the Playhouse has offered its Dionysos Awards, honoring both its performers and its volunteers.
“Volunteer work is central to our mission,” points out John Viars, director of the 98-year-old institution. “We’re a community organization, dedicated to community participation.”
Thus the awards for performers aren’t decided by critics, but first by audience ballot, and then, selecting from the biggest vote getters, by season-ticket holders. But the end-of-summer party for the Dionysos — with sumptuous food, drink and music — is also intended to “celebrate,” as Viars says, all the unpaid people in the box office, the aisles and backstage.
“We let them know how deeply we value their work,” Viars says.
Indeed, many of the volunteers honored have put in years at the Playhouse, “working in all aspects of the production,” says Viars.
After all, he adds, awards help relieve the transitory nature of the work. “Theater disappears,” he points out. “A show might be spectacular, but then it disappears.”
Maybe. Plays do get bound in books and put on film. Still, there’s that line from Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” about actors melting into thin air — as if they’d gone off to Hollywood. ■
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere.