Meet Bob Fennell: Former teacher and stage actor/singer/director on the verge of a one-night-only comeback.
How long have you lived in Richmond Hill?
I was born in Candler Hospital and I’ve been in Savannah and Richmond Hill all my life, which is almost 60 years now. My mother, Margaret Judy Fennell, was Henry Ford’s secretary.
What’s your impression of this community?
It’s not what it used to be, but I like what it is. It’s just that you grow up in a town where you go the post office or the grocery store and you know all the people that you see, and now you go to those places and it’s an event when you see someone you know. It’s so large and there are so many different communities you can live in within Richmond Hill. It’s just different, but it’s a beautiful town with lots of nice neighborhoods and good businesses.
Tell me about your experience in the entertainment industry?Well, I guess I just got lucky in my younger days by fulfilling my dream of singing and performing. I have been an artistic director, musical director and/or performer in dozens of national touring shows and musicals. Some of my favorite moments were performing in the first national touring company for Les Mis(erables) and playing the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. I had the great privilege of being the warm-up act for Bob Hope during a USO tour in the ‘70s. He was a wonderful, talented man and I loved his forty-two piece orchestra. My favorite show would have to be the touring production of Godspell, because I directed and performed in it.
Did you sing or perform as a child?
I was in a gospel group with my mother and father. I got to sing with the Lafevers, the Happy Goodmans, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Florida Boys Quartet and the Statesmen Quartet during a gospel competition. Believe it or not, we won that competition. I was nine years old. Gospel competitions were huge in the sixties.
I know you retired from the Bryan County school system several years ago. What drove you to trade entertainment for teaching?
I reached a point where I decided I’d rather teach than perform, so I got my degree in fine arts. You can perform so well, but you better be in the right place, at the right time, with the right person seeing you. There are dozens of Meryl Streeps out there – it’s a game of chance. I just got lucky to be able to do the things that I did. I spent 33 years as a teacher of English, chorus, music, theater, media, speech and drama. My first six years in education were in Chatham County at Jenkins High and Savannah High. Then I taught in Midland, Texas for 13 years. I came back here in 1992 and spent 15 years in the Bryan County school system. One of my greatest memories was coaching one of my performing arts classes to a very high level in the National Forensic League competition.
What do you do nowadays?
I’m officially retired now. I retired in 2005 after enduring two brain aneurisms. The American Medical Association will plainly tell you, such as with actor John Ritter, you get one brain aneurism and you’re out - you’re dead within hours. My survival puts me with less than one percent of those who have lived through two – much less ever walked or talked again. It took me three years to recover, and it’s a miracle that I’m alive. I don’t have all the abilities I used to, but I’m blessed to still be here.
I hear you’ve decided to make a comeback to world of performing arts.
It’s for one night only and all the proceeds are going to the Brain Aneurism Foundation. The night my body was found, Dr. Fremont Wirth saved my life. Not only is he a doctor in Savannah, he has been the president and chairman of the board of the BAF. I just wanted to do a fundraising event to help the organization and salute Dr. Wirth and the foundation, which conducts preventive research and helps victims.
What do you have planned for the event?
It’s turned out to be an all-star event with singing, dancing and variety. It’s much bigger than I ever thought it would be. The event is called "With a Song in My Heart". Most of it is centered around me, but I know my limitations. I’ll be singing, acting and playing piano. When I started organizing it, I got calls from several important performers in this area who volunteered to join the bill. People like jazz great Huxsie Scott, American Traditions Vocal Competition gold medalist Kim Polote, and other national touring greats like Mario and Lucinda Moran, Kim Albright Shabi, Rebecca King and Trina Stafford. All the featured songs are from the 1920s to the ‘60s.
- by Ross Blair
"With A Song in My Heart" takes place Monday, May 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Savannah Theater. A reception will follow the event. Tickets are $25, with all the proceeds going to the Brain Aneurism Foundation. For more information, call 233-7764.