“My mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” – Elwood Dowd, Harvey (by Mary Chase)
Of all the characters I have portrayed on stage (many, many years ago when I was involved in school and community theatre), Elwood P. Dowd has to be my favorite. Elwood is the male supporting character in Mary Chase’s Harvey; Harvey, the six-foot-tall white rabbit pooka, being the leading man in the show of course.
Many people know Elwood and Harvey from Jimmy Stewart’s 1950 portrayal, there was also a more contemporary version in a made-for-TV movie starring Harry Anderson. It is also a popular stage play. That’s where I got to portray the easy-going Elwood.
To me though, Elwood was best encapsulated in one man’s real life; Ed Koca.
I’m not saying Ed saw giant white rabbits, but he did see the world differently. He saw the joy in it and the humor that could be found in just about anything. He was easy going and kind. While I am sure he had things that would upset him, I never saw it.
Ed was a playwright. He wrote so many of those off-the-wall comedies, too unique to have come from anywhere else. For whatever reason I still remember the first line I ever had on stage. I don’t recall the title of the play, but the scene was a mother coming into an office with several children (of which I was one) and being a bit over run. “Look ma!” my character exclaimed as I put a metal bucket over my head, “I’m a space man (laser noises).” One of the gags in that scene also included me trying to lead the kids in going out the window to go down the fire escape.
From Sam Spoof, the bumbling private eye, that as the title implies spoofed the film noir detective movies to Goode or Badd, It’s Melodrama which put on stage the melodramatic, old west, radio dramas. Ed even wrote the songs for us to spontaneously sing. In Goode or Badd, I was Naint Badd…the hero in the white hat. Ed’s son Adam played Nodarn Goode, the villain. Adam and I became good friends through the theatre where we so often played opposing characters. There are too many shows to really recall. Ed even helped me when I took my first hand at directing in high school…I was a disaster as a director. Ed saved the show, but did it in his own way without asking for the applause; working behind the scenes to make sure the show went on.
Ed was an artist. When we needed the prop for our high school production of Harvey, he painted me and the big guy. To be honest, I think the smirk on Harvey is a little reminiscent of Adam. I held onto the painting and had it matted and framed. My wife made me remove it from the mantle in favor of our wedding picture. In the spirit of the show (if you’ve seen it, you’ll get the reference), I am often tempted to move it back to the mantle.
Ed was a radio host. He was known to so many throughout Southwest Missouri from his work on The Lake, 107.7 FM. People talked of his trivia knowledge and the fun he brought to the community through the airwaves.
Few people realize this, but it was Ed that gave me my first real taste of broadcasting. He would interview me, and others, on the town square during Memorial Day celebration live remotes. Ed cast me as the radio sound-effects guy in a play once as well. A goofy character from the glory days of radio in a Christmas-themed spoof of War of the Worlds. My favorite line was “Let’s go out for a Christmas Martini.” What’s a Christmas martini you ask? “You take a little gin (make the sound of pouring in gin), a little vermouth (gurgle), a handful of dirt and two peas.” Why the dirt and peas? “PEAS on Earth!”
More than anything he was a friend. He and his wife Kathy opened their home so many times to myself and my sister (who was good friends with Adam’s younger sister Lara). Their home became our second home. Ed even dressed in costume once when Adam, myself and my dad took us to a Star Trek convention. It wasn’t called Cosplay then, we were just nerds and loved every minute of it. Ed wasn’t afraid to laugh along with us or laugh at himself.
It’s hard to summarize a life. Even as I write this, my mind flashes back to all those moments on stage, in rehearsal…to hearing his chuckle…to seeing his smirk cross his face as you knew he was about to make a corny joke.
Ed passed away today.
I know I had told him before how fortunate I was to know him, I hope he knew it. I hope he knew how loved and respected he was and how the memory of his laughter and kindness will continue. I hope his family knows how thankful I am they shared him with me.
There are so many people who shape and influence you along life’s journey. I owe Ed and his family so much for being where I am today.
Which brings me back to Harvey, where Elwood would say, “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”
That was Ed.
He was the bearer of kindness and joy. A gentle giant of a man who left a lasting impact, wherever he was and whomever he was with.