Photo by Joe Del Tufo
DT: So you’re resurrecting your Judy Garland show?
GF: I wrote “Judy Garland” in 2000. It was taken from the 1950s and ’60s show called “This is Your Life.” On the show, host Ralph Edwards would surprise Roy Rogers or Jayne Mansfield or Laurel and Hardy. Preachers, teachers and next-door-neighbors would come in. In my conceit, instead of having these people, we would have Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin—they were friends. Judy was kind of a Rat Pack minor. So I wrote Rat Pack shtick that Frank and Dean would say. We did very well with the opening in 2007. We did it at Ninth and Market streets [in Wilmington] in the Delaware Trust lobby. We actually sold out nine nights and received standing [ovations] every time. So I then created the website to sell the shows to community theaters. I made money selling both the [“Gershwin, by George—The 1936 Radio Show”] and my Judy show to community theaters throughout the United States, but I always wanted to do it again locally.
DT: How is that working out?
GF: I have a strong connection to Candlelight Theatre. I was in the second show ever at Candlelight in 1970. The only claim to fame there is I played Joey in “Pal Joey,” and I must have massacred it enough that the show was never brought back in 40-some years. (He laughs.) But Cathy Cloutier, a good friend and senator of my district, is on the board at Candlelight. She is producing it with me. People know a “Carousel” or a “Camelot, ” but a new show like mine might be a tough sell. We finally got two weeks in April and May. We have auditions not only at Candlelight in January, but we’ll have auditions in Philly, too. It’s a paid gig.
DT: Tell us about the show.
GF: It takes place in 1961. It’s a mature Judy, not the “Dorothy” Judy. Obviously, we sing “Rainbow” at the end because we want the teardrops from the audience. The set is very spare. We’re going to have rear-projection. I collected about 60 really cool graphics throughout her life. She started performing when she was 2. There’s a great quote that George Jessel said. This was when she was 13. There were three Gumm sisters. They called her Baby Gumm. Jessel, in fact, suggested the name “Garland,” by the way. He said, “She’s in every way a pre-adolescent at age 12 or 13, but she sings like she’s carrying a torch for Valentino.” I put that in there. I have these really cool graphics of her and Mickey [Rooney]. As I, as the emcee, go chronologically through her life, the rear projection will have these beautiful graphics appear. We have a ton of posters from all the movies. I have to get people who cannot only sing … the only one who dances well is Liza. We’re going to recreate the “Cabaret” sequence. That’s the big dance number. It’s only a five-person show. They have to impersonate these people. That’s going to be the goal. A lot of people can sing the songs, but they have to be able to act like them. It’s going to be fun.
Note: Firestone’s daughter, Grace, suffered sudden cardiac arrest two days after graduating from Tower Hill School. New Castle County Emergency Medical Services helped save her life. Now a senior at UD, Grace lives with a defibrillator implanted in her chest. As a result of Grace’s experience, Firestone created the nonprofit Heart In the Game to provide free EKG screening for Delaware youth ages 10 to 19.
DT: Tell me about The Grace Firestone Act.
GF: (State Sens.) Bethany Hall-Long and Cathy Cloutier got together every stockholder in the process: Delaware Health and Social Services, the Delaware State Education Association, the nurses and the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association. We all got around the table in the past year and a half and we created The Grace Firestone Act. And on Aug. 25 of this year, we met at Middletown High School. Grace was there, and Gov. Markell signed it. The Grace Firestone Act mandates that all coaches have CPR and AED (automatic external defibrillator) certification. It also requires more information from the parents on heart history. There is a module now that the refs have to go through on a two-year basis with regard to understanding symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest—dizziness and those types of things. It was the sixth bill like it in the nation. I’ve read the bills from the other five states. Ours is a much better bill, and I’ve asked Cathy and Bethany to help me promote this nationally.
DT: What’s the latest with Heart in the Game?
GF: We’ve had four screenings, and they were all successful. You probably know about the one boy we found. [During the first screening, doctors recommended a follow-up appointment to a Brandywine High School freshman, who was later diagnosed with a heart condition. All agree that the screening likely saved his life.] I always felt that I would like to expand the mission of Heart in the Game, and we did with the fourth screening [held in December]. We now have four legs for the first time. We’re going to have the AAA Safety Foundation’s Drink, Drive, Disaster as a third station. Kids from 14 on up will be directed toward that. The fourth station is the Nemours project called The Whole Child. This is not just about healthy eating and good habits like that. It’s a concept they’ve created with regard to anti-bullying and getting enough rest—to make a better, healthy citizen and create emotional stability for the child. It’s such a great connection for us.
DT: What’s next?
GF: In January, we have our second fundraiser for Heart in the Game. We actually sold out 150 seats at our first fundraiser at the Candlelight in May. We’re going to the Clarion Belle with the same group on Jan. 10. I say kiddingly that other 501s have boring 5Ks. Heart In the Game rock ’n’ rolls with Club Phred and with Brian L. Wells and his Starliters Dance Studio. They do dance exhibitions. Then the weekend after that, I’m going to attend the national convention for Parent Heart Watch. I will be speaking about my expanded mission. There are 37 groups nationally, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one of them whose child survived. Sussex County Councilman Vance Phillips gave us $5,000, so we hope to have a screening in February at Sussex Central High School in Georgetown. The goal is to do this once a month throughout the state.
DT: Can you share some background?
GF: Delaware native. Dad was a DuPont lifer. Middle class. I grew up on Wawaset Street, facing the Brandywine right by Monkey Hill. Then in sixth grade we moved to Graylyn Crest. Dad went to high school with Gray Magness, so he got a deal on a house. I went to Brandywine High School. I was an athlete. We had fantastic basketball teams back then. We would pack the house—2,000 people every night we had a home game. I was president of student council. Went to Lafayette on a basketball scholarship. I was thinking, basketball scholarship, that felt cool. But Lafayette was all boys and it was way out in Eastern Pennsylvania. Why am I here? (He laughs.)
DT: How did you get into radio?
GF: So Lafayette lasted one year and then I came back to the University of Delaware. I was a political science major. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My senior year, a guy who lived on the same hall had been asked by the administration to create a radio station. He was a senior. He was outgoing. I was a junior at the time. This is 1968. So he said, “Greer, do you want to take over? I’m graduating.” I was then co-founder and the first general manager of WHEN. It was a great experience. We were creating something that was completely … it was carrier current back then. And I was the first one on the radio. In fact, on that day I interviewed Dr. Trabant, who was the president at that time. Fast forward to last year. I saw [former UD president] Dave Roselle in the Roselle Center [for the Arts] at a show and I said, “Dave, actually I was the co-founder and first GM of the radio station.” He said, “What was that, WXDR?” I said, “No. It was WHEN.” He said, “What? We bought WVUD from the University of Dayton. If I had known that it was HEN, we’d have gone back to HEN.” In fact, one of the perks of being the head dude there was that I got to intro all of the rock acts. So Gary Puckett and the Union Gap came in in their outfits. This is ’69 now, you know. So I went back stage and said, “Hey, Gary, would you do a promo for the radio station?” He said, “Yeah, what do you want?” His big hit at the time was “Young Girl.” I said, say this: “This is Gary Puckett of the Union Gap wishing all of you young girls who listen to WHEN radio … (he sings) Young girl, get out of my mind …” And that promo played for 10 years.
DT: You told me you were a hippie.
GF: I was No. 2 in the lottery for ’Nam. I went in to get drafted, basically, and a doctor—a lieutenant or captain—said, “Mr. Firestone, do you have any health issues?” I said, “Well, I fell off my bike when I was 15 and had a major concussion. I’ve got scar tissue on my brain.” And that was the truth. He said, “Young man, you flunk.” Well, that was the best about-face that I ever did in my life. I was out of there and I was out of ’Nam. He didn’t even ask for certification. So, while my peers went to ’Nam, I thought I should take advantage of this opportunity, so I hitchhiked around Europe for nine months. I came back with hair down to my shoulders—a typical hippie thing.
DT: I heard that you were involved with Earth Shoes.
GF: I came back from Europe and I wanted to be an actor, so I went to New York. I had a lot of theatrical experience in community theater from age 10 on and I helped found the Brandywine High School Alumni Theater Association. I wasn’t doing very well with the theater thing so I got a part-time job in the first Earth Shoe store in America. Anne Kalso, who was a Dane, was over at the store a lot because they were trying to create a whole industry here of Earth Shoes. So, with $3,000—an aunt died, who I had never met—I came back and in Philadelphia started the second Earth Shoe store ever. That was Earth Day 1972—the first Earth Day. And Earth Shoes struck a nerve. We were on the cover of Time magazine. I built seven Earth Shoe stores in the 1970s in D.C. and Philadelphia and did very well with them. The theory of the Earth Shoe has never been refuted. The theory makes sense—putting the majority of the weight of your body on the broad base of the heel, rather than on the small bones in the front of the foot. When the s*** hit in 1979, four of my seven stores were in malls with 10-year leases. And I was SOL. I lost it all, basically.
DT: So, you went through a couple rough patches along the way?
GF: After Earth Shoes, I lived in Sacramento, Calif., for four years. Then, I went through a bad divorce. I came back here, met my second wife and started anew. I continued with community theater. I was the lead with The Brandywiners and did all kinds of other community theater stuff. I just tried to build a whole new life. There was this thing called Sacramento’s Best of Broadway. I brought it back here. I took it to John Taylor at The News Journal. John kind of knew who I was and he liked theater. I said, “I want to create Delaware’s Best of Broadway.” The concept was, in a two-hour show, you would choose six Broadway shows. I have 700 vinyls of Broadway shows. I know a lot about Broadway and I know songs. So we got together a group of people and we created “Delaware’s Best of Broadway” in 1985. We would take three songs from “Cats,” three songs from “A Chorus Line,” three songs from “Carousel.” One would be a production number, one might be a solo, one might be a dance number. And we would have 80 people on stage. It was a nonprofit, so we would give the proceeds to a local charity. I did this from 1985 with a couple gaps in time, until the year 2000. But I didn’t make any money on it. I probably should have created a company to produce entertainment.
DT: What were the highlights of the show?
GF: The opening night was kinda fun. I re-wrote the show “1776” into about a half-hour. Here were the actors: Pete du Pont played John Adams. Elise du Pont played Abigail Adams. Mike Castle was Jefferson. John Taylor, Lonnie George and Mike Purzycki were in it. There was a funny line—1776, right? The opening scene we had Pete du Pont center stage in Philly and Abigail in Braintree, Mass., where they lived. Abigail says, “John, when will you be home?” John was kind of a curmudgeon character. So I had Pete saying, “Abigail, have you told the women in Braintree to create the saltpeter for the gunpowder we need?” Abigail says no. And John says, “Well, let’s get on it.” She says, “John, what is saltpeter?” And John says, “Well, you can call the DuPont Co. and find out.” And Abigail says, “John, it hasn’t been created yet.” DuPont wasn’t created until 1802 … and here are two du Ponts—the audience went nuts.
DT: You also did a Gershwin show.
GF: Best of Broadway was over, basically. So I wrote a show based on George Gershwin music: “Gershwin, by George—The 1936 Radio Show.” This was a for-profit thing. We did it 27 times at the baby grand, when the baby grand opened in the year 2000. The idea, I would go to nonprofits and say, “Use this as a fundraiser or a social gathering for your groups.” We sold out and did very well with that. During the time, money-wise, I was in all types of sales jobs. It wasn’t like I was making a great success.
DT: I recall about 10 years ago you did a military-themed re-enactor event.
GF: It was called “American Soldier Timeline.” We had 780 re-enactors from seven states come into Fort DuPont State Park. And they covered every military conflict in American history. We actually even had French and Indian War guys. We set it up chronologically and the visitors would walk through chronologically every conflict and every re-enactor crew. The Revolutionary War, of course, we had a couple guys from the War of 1812 who came up from Baltimore. The Civil War and World War II are the biggest group of re-enactors in general. We had a Civil War camp band and they played throughout. They were beautiful. We had a Civil War hospital, which is pretty dreadful when you look at the equipment. World War I, the guys literally dug a trench around their encampment. We actually juried people in, so they had to be the crème de la crème of those re-enactor groups. If people would come in with eyeglasses that were contemporary, they could not where those glasses. Every stitch had to be an appropriate thing. World War II, we had a demonstration of a flamethrower. We had Vietnam guys there. Tom Carper talked about Vietnam. Then we had a guy who was a teacher at my high school at Brandywine—Forrest Guth. He was one of the real Band of Brothers. He was the most compelling guy. Then we had a debate between General Lee and General Meade. These guys were just wonderful, talking about different troop deployment strategies and things like that. The first day, we invited schools throughout the state to come for free. We hosted 3,500 school kids.