Michael Broderick, 85, is back on stage this winter with the title role in the Kent Street Players’ seasonal treat Scrooge With A Twist. (Alex Browne photo)

An actor reborn at 85

The Kent Street Players’ Scrooge has spent a lifetime in rehearsal for stage roles

This story was featured in the Winter 2019 Indulge magazine, delivered with your Peace Arch News on Friday, Nov. 15.

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Michael Broderick is the kind of actor that comes along all too rarely in community theatre.

In contrast to those who simply rely on charm and razzle-dazzle to get them through, he’s a firm believer that when actors – and directors and technical directors, for that matter – do the homework of background preparation, it results in a better experience for the audience.

The tall, lean, contemplative character player, who has portrayed everything from lecherous characters in door-slammer farces like Don’t Dress For Dinner and the murderous Julian in Alan Ayckbourn’s time-travelling thriller Communicating Doors to the regal Henry II in A Lion In Winter, has never been content to simply follow stage directions and recite lines memorized by rote.

Possessed of a grasp of stagecraft surer than many who hold theatre degrees, he occupies his place on stage with authority, and when he says something he means it – and it stays said.

That’s why it’s a pleasure to see the 85-year-old back on stage this winter with the title role in the Kent Street Players’ seasonal treat Scrooge With A Twist – presented at the Kent Street Activity Centre on Saturday, Nov. 23 and Saturday Dec. 7 in 2 p.m. matinee performances, directed by Rita Humphreys with musical direction by Denise Brookson.

Although Martha McMillan’s script is a determinedly light-hearted variation on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – in which Broderick is actually playing an actor unsure whether he’s quite mean enough to impersonate the miserly Ebenezer – there are still enough glimmerings of the original character to allow him some wonderfully curmudgeonly moments.

But the current spring in his step, recognized and welcomed by friends and neighbours, has only lately returned, Broderick acknowledges.

For much of this year the 20-year Peninsula resident was acquainted with what he describes as “Churchill’s Black Dog” – the spectre of depression – and with good reason.

In February, Jean, the love of his life and his wife for 63 years, passed away after a lengthy illness. Coming to terms with mourning her and the loss of her presence in his life – a process that is, naturally, ongoing – was compounded by a host of attendant details, including being executor of her will, and dealing with a plethora of necessary financial and legal documentation.

Broderick ended up feeling overwhelmed, he said. While he has family – he and Jean adopted two sons and have three grandchildren, the process of grieving is ultimately an individual burden.

Turning through an album of old photos of his beautiful blonde bride, Broderick is understandably misty.

But recently, he said, he has begun to take better care of himself – thanks in part to the Activity Centre. He started a yoga class on Mondays, takes dance classes on Wednesdays and attends the regular Kent Street dances to rekindle skills he and Jean used to practise frequently in the `50s at the Commodore Supper Club, the White Rock Palladium and the old Hollywood Bowl in New Westminster.

And he plans to get back to playing tennis – enjoying the workout of matches at the Centennial Park courts is another lapsed passion – by early next year.

But he said his plans hadn’t included being part of the Kent Street Players, who stage two productions a year at the centre, and also travel to senior residences and other community venues in the Fraser Valley.

“I only attended a meeting just to find out what they were all about, and ended up saying to Rita Humphreys that I wouldn’t mind having a crack at Scrooge,” he said.

Ironically, for someone who has been so involved in theatre – he racked up some 27 productions over a 16-year period, he had little thought of being an actor until he took an early retirement at age 60.

His background was in professional engineering and telecommunications, including marketing, management and project supervision, when he first dipped his toe in the water, figuratively, with Coquitlam’s Stage 43 group.

He took his first part, as the telephone repairman in Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park, on the understanding that it was a small, supporting role. But, as those familiar with the play can attest, the part – a middle aged man who wearily, and repeatedly, climbs the stairs to the fifth-floor apartment of young newlyweds to fix their phone and becomes a humorously uncomfortable witness to their ongoing squabbles – is an absolute gift for any actor with an affinity for comedy.

Broderick recalls he found himself slipping easily into the world-weary attitude – and the New York accent – and getting big laughs with the part. From then on, he says, he was hooked – and was being presented with more and more opportunities to audition for other groups throughout the region.

Although it was helpful that he was British-born and had that range of accents up his sleeve (particularly with the abundance of British farces and murder mysteries that have been a little-theatre staple) Broderick said he’s still mystified whence sprang his theatrical aptitude and understanding of how to tackle a role.

“I don’t know why I do all these things I do,” he said. “It’s still a huge puzzle to me.”

He still tells tales on himself about how green to theatre he was when he started.

“I remember a writer for a community newspaper in Coquitlam interviewing me about the play and the character and then asking me about the size of my houses – I thought ‘what on Earth has that to do with anything?’ I didn’t realize she meant how large the audiences were – I didn’t know any of the terms.”

Everything he knows about stagecraft came out of a book, he confesses, although he maintains the best teacher was simply getting up on stage and doing it.

Certainly, there was little thought of acting when Broderick first came to Canada (in a marathon propeller airliner flight) in 1951 as a fresh-faced immigrant just one month after his 17th birthday.

But there are elements of perseverance and adaptability throughout his early life history that hint at why he was such a natural for the stage. In many ways, it seems, he had been rehearsing all his life.

Born to a working-class family in Leicester in 1934, he had a hard Depression-era childhood, with a father struggling with unemployment – and things didn’t get any easier when the Second World War came along, including the subsequent ‘Austerity’ movement of rations and minimal consumption in Britain during the wartime, and post-war years.

Broderick’s father, after service the Grenadier Guards, was convinced that emigration to Canada was the key to a better life and a better future for his family.

He established a foothold in 1949, with the family following later.

Broderick, who had dropped out of secondary school to take a job, didn’t need much convincing – if he’d stayed in Britain he’d have had to register for National Service.

Later, with Jean’s help, he got his education back on track with make-up high school courses geared to university admission, and subsequently earned his engineering degree from UBC in 1965.

His first employment in Canada couldn’t have been more typical of the period – he joined his father taking work at a logging camp at the north end of Lake Cowichan. During two years in the camps, he learned to do just about every lumberjack job, and can still rattle off all the terminology.

In 1953, he and his father were able to quit logging for safer, more congenial work (his father found a long-term job with the Lucky Lager plant in New Westminster and his parents rented a small house in Burnaby), he found himself looking for his place in life as a 19-year-old man with virtually no social skills.

“At that age you need to find a nice girlfriend, but to get a girl, you needed to have a car, and to have a car you needed to have driving lessons.

“So I went down to this old driving school in New Westminster, and when I walked in, who was sitting behind the front desk but Jean – she was 17 at the time.”

That began a lengthy period in which he attempted to court her, with little initial success.

“Her parents thought she should have nothing to do with me, and I still remember her telling me over the phone she didn’t want to see or hear from me again,” he said.

“I remember being in tears and my mum putting her hand on my shoulder and saying, ‘Never mind, son, there’s plenty more fish in the sea.”

But knowing Jean liked to go dancing he took dancing lessons and studied so assiduously that he became good at it.

“Then I phoned her and asked her, ‘Would you like to go dancing?’ and she said, ‘Well, perhaps.’

“So we went dancing, and we danced, and we danced and danced. And two and a half years after that we were married.”

The Kent Street Activity Centre is located at 1475 Kent Street.

Tickets for Scrooge With A Twist are $10, including light refreshments. For more information call 604-541-2239.

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