Five decades of friendship and collaboration: Kevin Cole on working with Leeds Bird

Leeds Bird – a name synonymous with the arts in the Great Lakes Bay Region. There’s probably no better person to describe Bird’s impact on theater and the arts than someone who worked with him for more than 50 years.

Over that time, if Bird was the left hand in any theatre production, Kevin Cole would be his right. The two met early on in Kevin’s school years and his interest and skill caught Bird’s eye. Cole initially saw Bird in action at Bay City Players.

Bird died on June 24 at 86 years old. His wife of 53 years, Margaret, survives him and many in the community remember his contributions to arts, education, and business.

“My parents took me to the Bay City Players in third grade because I was a pianist and they thought I'd enjoy the musicals. They also took me to some of the plays and comedies. So, I got to know Leeds as an actor and a director first as a kid. Seeing my first live theater at the Bay City Players was like seeing stars. They were like stars to me, especially Leeds, and I just thought, ‘Gee, wouldn't it be something to actually meet these people and work with them some day?’”

Then Pat Ankney, who was the choral director at Essexville Garber High School at the time, cast Cole in a production of “Mame,” through what was the Bay Music Foundation Scholarship Musical. Auditions were held so that anyone from any high school or grade school in town, public or parochial, could audition. Cole did and got cast in the fall of 1972.

Ankney latched on to Cole once she heard him play the piano and requested him to play for the spring musical at Garber, which Bird was directing.

“I was kind of enthralled by that just thinking I might even get to meet him, because I was playing piano in the orchestra. The spring of 1973 is when I actually met him as just a kid. Then I heard he would be directing a musical the following season at Bay City Players and it was Cole Porter's ‘Anything Goes.’ I was big fan of Cole Porter even at the age of 13, so, I auditioned. I later learned when Leeds and I became friends and worked together, that there really wasn't a part for me in that show. He just saw that I could sing and dance and he heard about me, so he added the part of ‘cabin boy’ to the ship in ‘Anything Goes’ just for me. That was my very first production as a performer where I got to work with him as the director. The following year, they did ‘1776: The Musical’ and I was cast in that. He was John Adams, the lead, and I played the courier. So, now I'm moving up and actually acting on stage with Leeds,” he said.

Kevin Cole, a concert pianist who organized the April 1 tribute, worked with Leeds Bird since Cole was a child. Cole then spent his senior year at the Interlochen Arts Academy, which is what it was named before it became Interlochen Center for the Arts, to further his arts education.

“After I graduated, I came back to Bay City and wasn't sure of what direction I was going in and whether I wanted go to conservatory, university, etc. So, I had a year off and Leeds was going to be directing production of ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ and was looking for a music director. I said, ‘How about me?’ He agreed, so I directed the music for that show. At the time, it was surreal to me that now I'm working with him side-by-side. That was in February of 1978,” said Cole.

“From there, I started getting it into my head that I wanted to write musicals versus just do other people's musicals, with Leeds directing. I thought, ‘I bet with a little prodding Leeds can write a script for that.’

“At first he thought I was pretty much out of my mind. Eventually, I convinced him that he could write lyrics and we worked on some original shows together.

“We ended up doing 25 shows together with him as director, and me as musical director. Bay City Players produced three of our original shows: one in 1985 that was a review of the music of Jerome Kern called ‘RSVP, Jerome Kern’; then we did one in 2007 called ‘A Shine on Your Shoes,’ using the song catalog of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz; then in 2018, we did a Christmas show called ‘A Carol of the Birds’ based on a story written by Kate Douglas Wiggin, who wrote ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.’ In that, Leeds wrote the original script and lyrics, and I wrote the original music,” said Cole.

“We did a lot of musical reviews and several other shows over the years. There are a couple that we completed that never saw the light of day and are on a shelf. We were revising some while also working at two new original shows just before he died. Now, it's up to me to continue working on them, because I have the roadmap of where they were going,” he said.

The tribute to Leeds Bird will take place at the Bay City Players Theater, where Bird was part of shows for decades.The last show Bird directed was “Godspell,’ which was done in Wenona Park in July 2021.

Their relationship was a special one, formed over a shared passion and five decades of working together.

“I think I'm the only person that can say they’ve had this kind of relationship with him as a friend and mentor. First, I was in the chorus and he's directing me, and the next year I’m sharing the stage with him as an actor. Then just two seasons later I’m musical directing and he's directing. Then after that, we're writing shows together. That's an incredible history and it gave me the chance to work with Leeds in all of the areas that he was an expert in. As an actor, as a director, as a creative force, a lyricist and a script writer. It's just stunning to me that I had the opportunity to know him and work with him. It was life changing and we became best friends. There was no age gap with us because of the music that I liked. He was such a film buff too, and the films that my folks exposed me to as a child were interesting. He'd say to me, ‘I can bring up some character actor from some obscure movie and you’d know exactly who I was talking about. There's so few people left that can do that.’”

Although Bird wasn't a musician, his instincts and how things should go were always spot on.

“We got to the point where we had our own shorthand for working together. I don’t think lightning will strike twice, or at least Leeds Bird Lightning will never strike twice. But I'm hoping with other collaborators I work with I can work as quickly with as him. He and I would get things done so fast. It was exciting and if we needed to make changes, we could in a matter of minutes. I compare him to an Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein had a depth of knowledge of theater and film like no other, and that’s what Leeds had. He just knew how to balance a script and what worked and what didn't,” said Cole. “He was called in to help with other people's shows, like a script doctor or show doctor when something wasn't working. His clarity of vision was unequaled and he cut to the chase.”

With so many years of experience working together, they had a bit of a unique style.

“With Leeds that there was just a polish to his performances. That’s whether he was acting or directing. There was just something solid, commanding, and distinctive about him. Anyone who met or worked with him, knew they were working with someone very special. He was very extraordinary, not only because of his knowledge, but because of the way he could pull the very best out of anyone he worked with.”

It's all those years of working together and with actors that paving the way for “What a Swell Party!” In part, because Cole had decades of relationships to pull from.

“In in putting together this tribute, we have over 15 performers coming back. So, I look at this as the night of 1,000 stars, because it will never happen again. That’s the bonus of having friendships from doing shows with Leeds and having him in our lives, because we can pull this off. My specific bonus is that I have a working relationship and friendship with Leeds over those several decades as well.”

“Our friendship is not like any I've ever had or that he had. Leeds and Margaret are family to me. They made a point of being at three of my most important concerts as a concert pianist. They were at the Hollywood Bowl when I made my debut there with the LA Philharmonic. They were at the Kennedy Center when I made my debut there with Marvin Hamlisch conducting. Then they also came when I had my Carnegie Hall debut. To be able to share three of the most important events for concert pianist, and venues for a concert pianist, that meant so much to me,” said Cole.

“They did it because they were supporting me and they were happy for me. They saw my highest of highs and my lowest of lows, just like my parents did.

“If anyone deserves a tribute, it's Leeds. No question. There were so many times over the years that without Leeds, the Bay City Players wouldn’t be what it was. We’d ask him, ‘Leeds, what do you think we should do?’ He always had the right solution and sense about what to do. He is one of the kindest people I've yet to meet. I still am processing him not being here and it's not even been a year yet. I always think of things during the day where I want to pick up the phone and call him. If he ever calls me, I hope he doesn't call collect, because that would be one hell of a phone call.

“With this performance, I'm glad we're able to do two shows in the same day, to give as many people a chance to remember him with joy. I think it will be an emotional roller coaster on April 1, but that's OK. If we have to pause for a little bit for Kleenex, so be it. But I can tell you he's going to have the best time. He would say, ‘Really? They're all there?’ He didn't like fuss, or at least about him. It's funny for a person that didn't mind being in the spotlight when he was in a show, in real life that's the furthest thing he wanted. He didn't want a lot of fuss and recognition and it would bother him. That's funny, because he knew it was never one person that pulls this type of thing off. It's a whole team. But somebody's got to be driving the wagon and there was no better driver than Leeds Bird.

“Leeds was so well versed in not only theater, but all of the disciplines of the arts. If you look at his biography, he was involved in Bay Arts Council, Studio 23, he had a framing shop, he and his wife, Margaret, were big supporters of the Saginaw Bay Orchestra, and his directing of straight shows, musical shows, comedies and plays. We tend to concentrate on the theater aspect of Leeds the most, because he did so much to keep Bay City Players alive, but he also inspired so many students as a teacher at Garber High School and as well as Standish-Sterling and Bay City Handy before that. Leeds was a person who quietly went about inspiring people to do their best. That's what he did for the community. Whatever he would plug into, whatever arts organization, or production, or fundraiser, whatever was, the end goal was to make it the best it could be. Whatever he could offer towards that end goal, he gave. He never held back.”

“What a Swell Party! A Celebration Tribute to Leeds Bird," will be a magical journey down memory lane celebrating 50 years of collaboration between Leeds Bird and Kevin Cole. The show runs on April 1 with shows at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.  All proceeds benefit Bay City Players. Tickets are available on the Bay City Players website.

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