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Earlier this year John Benjamin was putting a few “unique twists” on Romeo and Juliet. He said he was pretty certain that William Shakespeare would have been pleased.
Indeed. For decades, whether directing or acting, Benjamin delighted his audiences with his one-of-a-kind flair.
This week, Benjamin, a 15-year Shelbyville resident, is being remembered as a “giant” in theater, and a loyal friend, husband, father, and grandfather – a grandfather who although ever-dedicated to the stage, dropped out of a show when his grandson was born.
Benjamin, 68, passed away Tuesday, his family by his side. He had been awaiting a lung transplant. He is survived by his wife Bette, two daughters, and e grandson. A service will be Saturday at 2 p.m. at Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church in Louisville.
“Shelby County Community Theatre will go on, it will thrive, but without John it will not be quite the same,” his friend Duke Thomas Low said. “There will be something missing, and that will be the cause for remembrance. At some point it will dawn on each of us who knew him that the missing link will be the footprint of John, the Giant.”
Benjamin was born in Roanoke, Va., and worked as an actor, director or producer in West Virginia, Chattanooga, Ohio, New York City, Elizabethtown, Fort Knox, and lastly, in Shelbyville. He has performed in nearly 150 productions.
At Shelby County Community Theatre (SCCT), Benjamin last directed Romeo and Juliet
He said Shakespeare was his favorite playwright, ever since he first saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream during junior high school. Although he had twice before directed Romeo and Julie” at other theaters, it had long been a dream of Benjamin’s to bring the play to Shelby County. And it was particularly fitting that the show he called “the most famous love story of all time” held its opening night Valentine’s Day weekend.
In that show, Benjamin cast Michael Sheehy as Romeo.
“It was astounding to me to see a man who loved theater so dearly,” said Sheehy, a recent Shelby County High School graduate. “He guided me through a difficult process with patience and encouragement. John was in essence, theater itself.
“He had a hardy laugh, beaming smile, and an ability to take a character from a script and transpose it onto an empty stage. When he acted, you watched attentively, for there was nothing more awe-inspiring.”
Cyndi Powell-Skellie, SCCT’s artistic committee chair, met Benjamin in 1993 when she began serving on a panel for the Kentucky Arts Council to evaluate and interview Artists in Residence applicants.
“I remember being very nervous and feeling very under-qualified to serve in this manner; however, through his mannerisms, his facial expressions, his great smile, he helped me feel right at home,” she said.”
Skellie currently is directing Leader of the Pack, which opens at SCCT this weekend. The theater is dedicating the show to Benjamin.
“Working with John at SCCT was wonderful,” Skellie said. “He helped push our theater to try new things artistically. I shall never forget his love of theater, his inspiring words of wisdom or his incredible talent. I’m so saddened to have lost him.”
Cheryl Rankin Van Stockum, SCCT President-elect, said Benjamin knew how to challenge and encourage his actors.
“His passing has left a huge void,” she said. “He would fuss at me for saying that: ‘Oh for Heaven’s sake, there’s no time to be sad!” Followed, of course, by his huge resounding laugh.”
Low said Benjamin played all his roles “to the hilt.”
“John had a way of putting himself in his character without distorting the actual character he was portraying,” Low said. “Not many people can do that. He also had such a special way of making each actor feel very important in the role in which he cast them. I never saw a John Benjamin production in which I didn't feel the emotion of each character coming through.”
Pat Wetherton, past SCCT president, said Benjamin gave his fellow actors much strength, passion or humor to work with. She recalled her favorite scene working with him: a sword fight opening to Moon Over Buffalo in which they wore “tricky” Shakespearean costumes.
“John choreographed our movements, had himself falling over chairs, and me running across the stage flailing a sword while wearing a 20-pound long dress,” Wetherton said “During this scene one night, the Velcro holding up his pants failed. He played the entire scene holding a sword in one hand and holding up his pants with the other. He never missed a beat!”
But, like many have said, her favorite memory of Benjamin will be his laughter.
“He was wonderful to have in the audience,” she said. “If you were on the stage, you could always pick out John's laugh. And it was infectious. We used to say that we would pay him to be in the audience when we did a comedy. He will be greatly missed.”