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Beauty on canvas and a ghost on stage

Jeffrey Baumgartner oil paints near lagoMiller.  |  Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

Jeffrey Baumgartner oil paints near the lagoon in Miller. | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

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If you go ...

Tickets for “Barrymore’s Ghost” are $20 in advance; $25 at the door. Seating is limited. To order tickets visit eventbrite.com or call (219) 938-4566.

Exhibit hours for “One a Day, 30-in-30: Impressions of Miller” are 6 to 9 p.m. Fridays, 3 to 9 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. There will be an ascending price structure.

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Updated: July 12, 2014 6:09AM



“You can’t drown yourself in drink. I’ve tried, you float.”

— John Barrymore

It felt like the final scene from the film “The Shawshank Redemption” as I strode along Lake Michigan’s sandy shore toward Jeffrey Baumgartner. But he was wasn’t restoring a boat like the character Andy Dufresne. Baumgartner was oil painting. That’s what he does when he’s not treading the boards.

Baumgartner, 52, is a native of Fort Wayne who has lived in the Miller community of Gary since October. On June 14 and 21, he will be featured in a one-man play entitled “Barrymore’s Ghost” at the Marshall J. Gardner Center in Miller. His oil paintings will be displayed through July 6, also at the center. The exhibit is entitled “One a Day, 30-in-30: Impressions of Miller.”

***

Growing up in Fort Wayne?

“You grow up water skiing on the lakes north of Fort Wayne,” he said. “I attended a small parochial school and was a four-year tennis and track guy.”

Which high school was that?

“Bishop Luers.”

A perennial powerhouse in football. In what events did you compete for the track team?

“As a sophomore, I discovered the pole vault. In my junior year, I tied the school record in the last meet of the year. I jumped throughout the summer, came back for the first meet of my senior year, and bested the school record by two feet. My record still stands.

“My senior year was a heady one. I was cast as Don Quixote in ‘Man of La Mancha.’ That was the spring musical. It also was regional competition in track. I won the regional and went on to the state finals. A full ride track scholarship got me to college at the University of Wyoming.”

That’s great.

“How are you going to make a career as a pole vaulter? By my senior year of college I was doing well in the theater. I was offered a theater scholarship. I made the switch.”

One of your more memorable roles while at the University of Wyoming?

“I played The Elephant Man.”

John Merrick.

“Merrick was a great role. Being an athlete, I was built fairly well. They had me dressed in this loin cloth kind of thing. The play begins with the doctor describing to his audience the list of Merrick’s maladies and disfigurations.

“You talk about a moment in the theater. The moment Treves (the doctor) says: ‘Mr. Merrick, if you please’ and Merrick makes his first move, there is an audible gasp and an almost palpable shiver from the crowd — energy from the audience.”

You give me goose bumps.

“I’ve got them, too. Based on a true story, ‘The Elephant Man’ is a heartbreaking but hopeful story that lives in the theater.”

Your ascent to becoming a professional actor?

“My senior year there was a new program called the National Theater Conservatory. I auditioned in Denver. They auditioned something like 400 people from around the country. They took 22.”

Did you make the cut?

“Yes. After your first year of training, they cut that in half. I was one of the 11 who continued on for another two years. Actually, it’s another year of training and then you become a company member. It was cool.”

Jeffrey, I jump all over with these interviews. Whenever something pops into my head. The playwright Sam Shepard?

“That’s OK, that’s how my brain works, too. I’ve been in two Sam Shepard things. In grad school, I did ‘Fool For Love.’ It was a bravado kind of cowboy role that was perfect for me. There’s a scene where my character is pissed. His lady friend has had an affair. She’s lying on a bed. He has a lasso. He’s grilling her while he continually lassos the bedpost and pulls her closer each time. It’s really frightening in a Shepard kind of way.

“I’m thinking, as an actor, ‘You have to learn how to lasso.’ So I drove two hours from Denver to Wyoming because I knew of a restaurant where all the cowboys would come in off the range to have breakfast. I pull up to this diner and there are all these pickup trucks with gun racks and lassos in the back.”

Perfect.

“I go in, sit at the counter and I look at these guys. Half of them don’t have any teeth. They’re wearing chaps and cowboy boots and walking around bowlegged.”

The real deal.

“You know how this is going to end. I’m not about to walk up to these guys like some English dandy and say: ‘Hullo, I’m a thespian and was wondering if you gents would be kind enough to give me lariat lessons in the back of the lot.’ ”

You have a point.

“I had a cup of coffee and a doughnut and drove back to Denver. It was too weird.”

You eventually start your own theater company in Chicago.

“Yes, from 1990 to 2005. In the middle of that I was teaching at Aurora University. I was a professional theater artist in residence. My company’s name was Borealis. I also ran the Fox Valley Shakespeare Festival for 15 years.”

How many times have you done ”Barrymore’s Ghost”?

“I believe this is the sixth time. The original intent was to find a piece of storytelling, of good writing, of good theater, that’s around visual arts. What’s cool about John Barrymore is that he wanted to be an artist before he became an actor; so did his siblings Lionel and Ethel.

“The playwright for ‘Barrymore’s Ghost,’ Jason Miller, is the actor who was nominated for an Oscar in his role as the priest in ‘The Exorcist.’ He also won a Pulitzer for Drama for his play ‘That Championship Season.’ ”

Tell me a little more about the plot. Not too much; I want to see it.

“Barrymore has been condemned by the ‘Theater Gods’ to haunt a theater because he basically pissed away his life. It’s part of his penance after death.”

What’s the running time?

“Two 50-minute acts with an intermission in between.”

Very good. Your art exhibit?

“The project is called ‘One a Day, 30-in-30: Impressions of Miller’ because I intend to create 30 oil paintings in 30 locations in 30 days. I’m coming off three years of fairly intensive out-of-doors impressionist painting called ‘en plein air’ which in French means ‘in the open air.’ I painted in Jupiter, Florida; Gloucester, Massachusetts; the Adirondacks; Nashville, Indiana; Chicago ... ”

Since moving to Miller, you’ve created paintings of the Father Marquette statue, the Aquatorium, the old Baptist Church, Ono’s Pizza, the Town Hall built in 1911, the lush lagoon. ... Final thoughts?

“People come up to me while I’m outdoors painting and ask me why I’m doing this project, this series. I tell them my reasons are totally selfish. I’m getting to know Miller. What better way to learn the community you knew nothing about than to paint it?”

***

I but scratched the surface with the bohemian Jeffrey Baumgartner, a true Renaissance Man.

He and Miller are a perfect fit.



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