Greenville pays tribute to city’s first lady of the theatre

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 9, 2006

The red carpet is in place. The paparazzi, milling around, cameras in hand, crane their necks to see if a certain legendary lady is on her way.

Hundreds are already inside the theatre, some having traveled many miles, all eager for the show to go on. A bevy of singers is poised and ready to perform for the crowd. Excitement and nerves are mounting.

&#8220She's here!” Someone calls out. Flashes start popping as the star steps out of her chauffeured vehicle, an elegant dark-haired vision in red.

As she enters the building on the arm of her nattily-dressed escort, Rock Killough, the applause swell and voices ring out:

&#8220Hello, Bobbie, well, hello, Bobbie…”

Ladies and gentlemen, Roberta Peacock Gamble has just entered the Ritz.

Let's put on a show!

‘Beauty and joie de vivre'

Gamble, known affectionately as

&#8220Miss Bobbie” to her legion of friends, former students and fans, officially turns 80 on March 23, 2006.

The Greenville Area Arts Council co-founder, former social worker, history and drama teacher and stage director has long been considered the &#8220grande dame of the arts” in Greenville, her adopted hometown.

The Florida native was honored, (and very much surprised), with an early 80th birthday party at the Ritz Theatre last Saturday afternoon.

&#8220Listen, I thought I was going to the movies in Montgomery,” the bemused guest of honor announced to the crowd as Killough led her to her seat.

In the planning for months, the gala event proved to be a full-fledged musical production mixed with a bit of &#8220This is Your Life,” Bobbie Gamble-style.

Nancy Idland and Todd Henderson, former students of Gamble, served as the elegantly dressed emcees for the afternoon's events.

Idland shared a remembrance written by Greenville native and avid supporter of the arts, Betty Ruth Speir:

&#8220I well remember when Bobbie arrived in Greenville as Bub's (Arthur Gamble) bride. She not only embellished our city with her beauty and joie de vivre, but immediately set forth to make a Greenville a better place for us. Her contributions to the arts and education in our area are unequaled.”

Show tunes and memories

A colorfully clad chorus, accompanied by musicians Rhonda Bentley and Charlie Kennedy, performed many show tunes familiar to fans of Miss Bobbie's Greenville High School drama productions.

Audience members were soon humming and singing along to classics such as

&#8220My Favorite Things,” &#8220The Surrey With the Red Fringe” and &#8220Mame.”

GHS grads Priscilla Davis and Barbara Kelly gave the audience a tongue-in-cheek reminder: Miss Bobbie actually first made her mark as a director, not in 1970, with &#8220Making Whoopee!” but in 1959, when she put on &#8220The People Versus Maxine Lowe.”

&#8220This production was proof Miss Bobbie could get blood out of a turnip,” Davis quipped.

Frank Phelps, who played plantation owner Emile De Becque in Gamble's 1985 production of &#8220South Pacific,” said he had spent &#8220three hours trying to construct a speech…and I'm still speechless.”

&#8220The dictionary defines a mentor as a ‘wise, loyal advisor.' But for someone like Miss Bobbie, that doesn't begin to fill the bill,” Phelps said.

&#8220She would put on a show with 80 or 90 people. Listen, I've got three kids and I can't get them to do anything in harmony. What Miss Bobbie did was phenomenal. Miss Bobbie, I take my Emile De Becque hat off to you,” Phelps said before launching into an emotion-filled rendition of &#8220Some Enchanted Evening.”

Others recalled Gamble's &#8220endless energy” and &#8220unstoppable enthusiasm” with her students. And an amusing skit, voiced by Carolyn Messina as Gamble, recalled the impact of that disembodied voice from above thundering commands to her young performers before finally announcing, &#8220Oh, my darlings, we've got a show!”

‘Bobbie's kids'

Idland shared another written tribute to Gamble: &#8220A wonderful woman, she was like Mame. She could inspire us to do things we never thought we could do.”

Leah Benson Stonicher said her fond memories of Gamble went back far beyond Stonicher's role in &#8220Mame” in 1981.

&#8220When I was in the fourth grade, I got to be one of the children in ‘The Sound of Music' and I thought I was really something back then,” Stonicher said with a smile.

&#8220I remember Randy Foster was pairing us off with dancing partners and I thought, oh, this is my chance to dance really close with some cute boy. He was cute. Unfortunately, he was also my brother,” she added with a wry grin.

Stacy Harrell recalled a teacher who &#8220had a way of bringing talents out in kids like no other…of digging out diamonds in the rough.”

&#8220You know those energetic kids who run rampant these days? They call them ‘ADD'. Back then, we were known as ‘Bobbie's kids.' The world is a stage and Miss Bobbie teaches us how to act on it,” Harrell added, chocking back a tear.

DeeDee Womack, decked out in her Annie Oakley Western fringe and boots, arrived on stage to perform the amusing &#8220You Can't Get a Man with a Gun.”

&#8220Your first gray hair must have came the day of our first performance (in 1982), when both of your leads woke up with laryngitis,” Womack reminded Gamble with a chuckle.

More performances and memories followed, including Sabrina Snell Reynolds and Tom Payne harmonizing on an uplifting &#8220Day by Day” from &#8220Godspell;” Donna Pearcey, a.k.a. 1984's Maria Von Trapp, lending her powerful soprano to &#8220The Sound of Music” and Joe Harvill, Sky Masterson in 1983's &#8220Guys and Dolls,” sang of having &#8220Never Been in Love.”

&#8220I love you, I love you, Miss Bobbie. You are an icon,” Harvill said.

‘Let's put on a show!'

Charlie Kennedy, one of Gamble's fellow co-founders of the GAAC, recalled the days in the early 1980s when the group was looking for a permanent and ideal place to put on a show.

&#8220So we thought – should we buy the Ritz? Not everybody jumped on the bandwagon. I think they thought we'd lost our minds. The place was an absolute wreck,” Kennedy said.

After much &#8220weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” the city fathers and the owners of the building, the Poole family, reached an agreement and the building was purchased for restoration.

&#8220You've just experienced the most recent show at the Ritz. Let me tell you about the first one,” Kennedy said.

&#8220A group of us were sitting in this theatre, looking at the tattered curtains, broken seats and burlap peeling off the walls and thinking, ‘Good Lord, how will be ever get the money to restore it?' And Bobbie said, ‘Let's put on a show!' We said ‘when?' and she said, ‘right now!'”

&#8220Puttin' on the Ritz” was quickly put together and the small band of dancers, musicians and dramatists put on an impromptu show amidst cobwebs and debris for a half-dozen audience members – &#8220not counting the pigeons, rats and roaches that joined us,” Kennedy chuckled.

&#8220That's why I say this theatre and her contribution to the arts in this community are going to be Miss Bobbie's legacy. She was the steamroller who begged and cajoled and pushed to get the money and supplies to give us the ‘new' Ritz Theatre,” said Kennedy.