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Posted on Fri. Nov. 09, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

Roping in the audience

‘Will Rogers’ opens USF Performing Arts Center

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If you go

What: “The Will Rogers Follies”

When: 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 16 and 17; 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 18

Where: University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center, 431 W. Berry St.

Admission: Tickets, from $12 to $15, may be reserved by calling 797-1699.

This summer, the Beauchamp household was the site of many deliveries of exotic rope.

Leslie Beauchamp recalls telling her husband, Brad, “I want to know what the UPS man thinks about all the ropes being delivered to this house.”

Apparently, the UPS person did not venture out into the garage.

There, he or she would have found Brad Beauchamp practicing his trick roping in advance of portraying Will Rogers onstage.

“The Will Rogers Follies,” which opens today, inaugurates the newly rechristened University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center, formerly the Scottish Rite Center.

Beauchamp admits that he knew nothing about trick roping before he agreed to take on this role.

“I thought it would be relatively easy,” he says. “I told the director I could rope anything, … and I was wrong.”

“It is an art,” says Leslie Beauchamp, one of the show’s many co-directors. “If you look at video of Will Rogers, you’ll see him with three ropes going at one time and he’s roping horses, cattle and people.

“I think back to the garage when (Brad) could barely get this one rope going,” she says.

Brad Beauchamp says he has improved a lot since then.

“I can spin a rope, walk, talk and chew gum at the same time,” Brad Beauchamp says, “and that is a talent I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

Leslie says she wasn’t the first person who suggested her husband for the role, but that he seemed an obvious choice thereafter.

Will Rogers has been quoted as saying he never met a man he didn’t like, Leslie says, and Brad Beauchamp has spent his life embracing that phrase.

“The Will Rogers Follies” may be ideally suited in several senses for ushering in a new era at this venerable West Berry Street venue.

It has never been produced locally, the Beauchamps say, it is political without being acerbic or partisan, it is family-friendly, and there is a unique historical link.

Brad Beauchamp says the Ziegfeld Girls, featured prominently in the show, once performed at the Scottish Rite with Fanny Brice.

“I don’t have the exact dates,” he says. “Ethel Barrymore, Mae West and the Ziegfeld Follies starring Fanny Brice are said to have appeared there. It’s kind of neat to think that Fort Wayne had all these big acts.”

Rogers also performed with the Ziegfeld Follies, but “The Will Rogers Follies” ventures imaginatively beyond that historical fact by depicting Rogers’ entire life as a series of musical numbers.

This scope and gusto makes “The Will Rogers Follies” one of the higher budgeted shows people are likely to see locally, Brad Beauchamp says.

“It’s the Ziegfeld Follies, so it’s costumes, feathers, boas, bangles and bobbles and tons of them,” he says. “That’s a huge undertaking for a staff. We had to go out and get a lot of costumes from a Broadway rental house.”

Our collective, cultural memories of Rogers may have faded a bit, but there may not have been the more popular and influential comedian in our nation’s history.

“He was at the top of the bill,” Brad Beauchamp says. “He was one of the highest-paid motion picture stars and one of the highest-paid writers for newspapers.

“He was the most popular radio personality,” he says.

What’s truly remarkable about Rogers, Beauchamp says, is the timelessness of “his wit and wisdom.”

“He still shows us that as much things change, they remain the same,” he says.

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