Russell a real judge of talent

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The name itself is distinctive. Elegant even. J. MacDonald Russell Jr. It rolls off the tongue like a slick, sugary Southern symbol of sophistication.

And at first glance, the man to whom it belongs seems no less.

A Greenville native, his pedigree is deep, impressive and solid. A Fort Dale Academy graduate. Sigma Nu fraternity at the University of Alabama. Juris doctorate, also at Alabama. Vice president of the student bar association. Six years with local law firm of Hartley and Hickman. Twice elected probate judge of Butler County.

Completing first term as district judge with an eye on re-election.

Active in St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Lay reader. Member of the vestry. Occasional choir member. On the boards of the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club. A Lion.

Dignified. Admired. Sturdy. A role model for certain. A poster boy still for the All American image.

So it was no wonder his assortment of roles in last week's stellar Putting On The Ritz performance drew surprised looks from those who had not seen &#8220that” side of the judge.

On a night where talent was abundant, it may be a stretch to say he stole the show, but

Mack Russell claimed his share of the spotlight.

He appeared on stage no less than eight times during the two-act, two-hour performance before near capacity crowds at the storied old downtown theater, stepping out as the featured singer, providing background support and taking part in ensembles.

He said he liked his lead in &#8220Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City” best, but it was his personality-plus part in, perhaps appropriately, &#8220In the Jailhouse Now” with buddies Steve Norman and Skip Adair that had the house howling.

Exchanging his judicial robe for a straw hat, a plaid shirt from his closet, a pair of overalls, work boots and a scraggly beard that hung from his ears, Russell looked anything but dignified as he lovingly hugged a microphone, yodeling - yeah, yodeling — to his heart's content as stunned friends and neighbors looked on. Not even his heel-and-toe, booty-shaking sashaying across the stage could match the magical moment.

&#8220I had never done it before,” he said of his newfound talent. &#8220When we first got together, (musical arranger) Charles Kennedy asked me if I had ever done anything like that. I told him I had made some kind of Tarzan screams when I was younger. He said that was good enough and we went from there.”

That it was a highlight of both shows was obvious.

Though there has been some good-natured kidding from family, friends and court workers, there have also been compliments. He looked and sounded like a pro.

&#8220I did have a guy ask if I was going to start yodeling out the verdicts,” he said, sharing a quick laugh at the thought of such a gesture.

There is no chance of that, of course, but don't be surprised if you find Russell on stage again in another community performance.

&#8220It was a lot of hard work,” he admitted, &#8220but it was a lot of fun, too. When - or if - we do something else, I'd love to be involved.”

Because judicial canons now cause him to be careful in even the most casual of conversations, he also found some therapeutic thespian benefits. Many of what used to be normal talks and visits now end in mid-sentence when cases or case status pops up. Not so, the stage work. The feedback of smiles and giggles offered no barriers.

&#8220But I also wouldn't mind if those in the audience this time saw how much fun we had and decided to be on stage next time themselves. I'd be happy just sitting out there and watching until my next time came.”

Beaming at what he senses was both a remarkable financial and entertaining success, but not wanting to speak for the director Nancy Idland and the sponsoring Arts Council, he hopes &#8220more” will be an operative word, acknowledging the area is full of talented folks.

He figures The Ritz and the community have benefited nicely from 25 years of professional shows and assumes those should and will continue. But, adrenalin still pumping, he adds a local production every two or three years might be a terrific and prosperous idea as well.

Especially if there is room for a Yodl-Ay-EEE-Ooooo or two.

Until then, look for him to try and gain back a sense of decorum. After all, he has an image to uphold.

Ed Darling is president and publisher of Greenville Newspapers LLC. He can be reached at 382-3111 or