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Broadway's original Li'l Abner comes to Countryside High to coach drama students

CLEARWATER — If you're looking for tips on how to perform a play, why not talk to the guy who originated the role?

Kim Florio, director of Countryside High School's Drama and Thespian Troupe 900, took her cast to Broadway on Wednesday without leaving the school. While the troupe gathered to rehearse Li'l Abner (the play opens Nov. 20), Peter Palmer, who originated the Broadway title role, entered the auditorium.

Palmer, who moved from Los Angeles to Temple Terrace 20 years ago, talked about his fast climb to the Broadway stage, where 52 years ago, almost to the day, he debuted as Li'l Abner.

"I won an Army talent contest and got a spot on Ed Sullivan. The Li'l Abner producers were watching another show, but during a commercial tuned in and saw me singing,'' said Palmer, 75. "They contacted me and two weeks later I was chosen to play Li'l Abner. Three months later I was discharged from the Army. Out of about 800 performances on Broadway, I never missed a show."

That energy and love of acting kept Palmer in the spotlight with more than "6,000 performances, 40 different plays, and eight movies," including a part in Edward Scissorhands. Palmer and his wife, actress Aniko Farrell Palmer, starred on many stages and in national Broadway tours, but also have performed at local theaters. That's how Florio connected with Palmer.

Florio worked as the choreographer at the Masque Community Theatre in Temple Terrace from 1997 through 2000, which included several shows with Palmer.

When Florio asked Palmer to speak to her students, he was enthusiastic about sharing his Broadway experiences with a new generation. He wanted to show that "actors can have a major career without getting caught up in the drug scene that often plagues Hollywood stars."

"My wife and I attended many parties where there were drugs … but we always answered no," Palmer said "My argument was that I knew I was going to like it and I didn't want to get caught up in anything. I've seen many careers go up in smoke."

While students listened to Palmer and had the opportunity to ask questions, the real interaction developed when Palmer stepped on stage.

"Do yourself a favor; realize every person, lead or chorus is a part," Palmer said. "Develop your characters. A banker's daughter will act differently than a blacksmith's daughter. Listen more. React more. Practice equals performance."

Chorus member and freshman Jillian Stein sat quietly and listened. Even before the actor spoke, Stein knew his presence and insight would add depth to the show.

"He was in the play when it was new and on Broadway. It's cool he can share what the play meant to him, and what he thinks and knows about the characters. That adds more meaning to the play."

>>Fast facts

About Li'l Abner

• Opened in 1956 on Broadway.

• Based on the comics series by Al Capp.

• Book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank

• Music by Gene De Paul;

lyrics by Johnny Mercer

• Original cast included Peter Palmer, Edith Adams, Howard St. John, Stubby Kaye, Tina Louise and Julie Newmar.

Broadway's original Li'l Abner comes to Countryside High to coach drama students 11/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 1:02pm]

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