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Acting on a whim

The moment was pure magic for Judge Bob Beach.

There he was, onstage at the Palace Theater, tripping the light fantastic with the cast of Broadway's Beauty and the Beast.

As Etienne, a villager, Beach was singing and dancing in the opening number, Belle. He then appeared in a "mob" scene with Gaston and again in a battle scene at the end of Act III. Then he did his solo performance _ several bows _ at a curtain call center stage.

How did the former chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit for Pinellas and Pasco counties land a part in Disney's $12-million adaptation of its wildly successful animated film and a chance to perform on the Broadway stage?

"I bid on it and won . . . heh, heh, heh," he said, chuckling about his good fortune over lunch at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club a few days before his New York debut a week ago.

"I guess there is a bit of Walter Mitty in me," said Beach, who sentenced some of the circuit's most serious lawbreakers during his time on the bench.

As if he's just discovering this about himself.

Sixteen years ago, he celebrated his 50th birthday by attempting to swim the English Channel. He almost made it. Nineteen miles into his swim in the channel and 2 miles short of the French coast, treacherous currents and a strong tide ended that quest. In 1974, he swam from Alcatraz across San Francisco Bay in 33 minutes.

"The only judge to do so," he offered.

He also has completed a 9{-mile swim across Lake Michigan.

Beach was instrumental in establishing the Master's Swimming Program in the United States. In 1973, he was the U.S. national long-distance swimming champion in the 40-44 age group.

Before last Sunday's performance, his only thespian experience was a brief appearance 10 years ago with the Clearwater Little Theater.

Since his official retirement (though he still is pressed into service from time to time), Beach has spent most of his time traveling to the far corners of the world.

He is able to do so, he says, because he looks for bargain fares and sleeps in his rental cars, stopping in church yards, in hospital parking lots or at all-night gas stations.

After a trip to Chile in May, he met his older daughter, Janet Harris, in New York, where they attended four Broadway shows in four days.

Waiting for the curtain to go up for Beauty and the Beast, Beach was reading the playbill, and an insert fell into his lap. It advertised a silent auction for Broadway CARES/Equity Fights AIDS. The winning bid would include a chance to appear in three scenes in Beauty and the Beast; an individual curtain call; rehearsals, including an individual session with the dance captain and the cast; and an outfitting with costumes and wigs. It also provided individual dressing room space; a name on the cast board; a bio and photo in the playbill; a photo with the cast after the curtain call; four front-row seats; and the chance to buy the best seats in the house for family and friends. The winning bidder's name would appear on the marquee.

"What the heck," Beach said. "I loved the show. There was no vulgarity. I thought my granddaughters would love seeing me in it. I started fantasizing about being in the show. I was stagestruck."

The minimum bid was $3,000, and the judge submitted a $5,000 offer.

Two weeks later, stage manager Jim Harker called to say the part was his. Beach picked the matinee on July 14. His special guests would be his son-in-law and daughter, Greg and Janet Harris of Sebring, and their two daughters, Courtney, 9, and Caitlin, 11.

After setting the date, Beach went off to Tahiti, where he boarded a steamer for a South Seas adventure.

For his day on the Great White Way, Beach had his own cheering section. In the audience in addition to the Harris family were Judge John and Joyce Ware, Judge David and Johnna Patterson, Peter Winn, Irene Aistars and Pete Giglio.

In addition to his minute of fame on the Broadway stage, the judge got a small buzz in a New York Times column, thanks to the show's publicist, Stefanie Kastel of Boneau, Bryan and Brown.

Then he was off again. Monday morning, Beach and Giglio, a longtime friend from Tampa, flew to Paris. They will spend the next six weeks touring France and Italy and, of course, sleeping in the car.