Ken Bradbury: Playwright On The Prairie

Nov 17, 2017

For a true sense of the impact Ken Bradbury has had, his Caring Bridge website lends a clue. It's been visited more than 60,000 times and there are hundreds of comments from those whose lives he’s touched, many of them his former students. 

It was created earlier this year to provide updates on his cancer diagnosis. It's the only place he's writing these days. "I need to feel just a little bit better before I get into more creative writing," he says. Still, Bradbury's made over 200 posts and many are very creative. 

I met with Ken in Jacksonville, at the modest, cute and tidy brick home he recently moved into from Arenzville. Ken was born in 1949 and was raised in the tiny Pike county community of Perry. He says he prefers the small-town life and the community and possibility it can generate. Bradbury says he had a very wholesome upbringing, his parents may as well have been Ozzie and Harriet. "Dad was a farmer. Mom was a school teacher and musician. After I started teaching I would hear my students talk about their parents arguing about things, and it occurred to me I never did once hear my parents argue." Bradbury has one brother who he's still very close to and has acted with.

As a kid, Ken was active in his high school's theater and marching band - which had only a dozen members. "I learned to play many instruments while I was there - because it was a small school, you could do everything. Literally in our school you played trumpet for a while, but then the baritone player graduates, so you learn how to play baritone - and what you end up with is a pretty well rounded musical education."

While he went on to follow in his mom's footsteps of teaching and music, it wasn't his initial calling. "Ever since I was in Junior High, I wanted to be an undertaker." Growing up, his uncle held that job. He also served as an ambulance service. Ken would ride along and help - whether it be EMT-like duties or embalming. Ken says his uncle, "Was a happy guy, people admired him in our community. He was just fun to be around."

If admiration and a reputation for fun was the end goal, Bradbury certainly got his wish. “He’s such a character. He has quite a sense of humor, very very creative - I often wondered how he came up with the ideas he came up with," says Patty Clinton, who taught with Bradbury at Triopia High School in rural western Illinois. Their classrooms were side by side. Bradbury had started teaching after college to earn money for mortuary school - and ended up never leaving the profession. He still teaches at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield.

Clinton says he often pulled pranks. One day a note was sent over for her to look out the window - the fields were full of birds. “About ten minutes later I heard this blood-curdling scream. I look over and there at the window is Ken, he’s on his knees scratching at the window - and he’s taken makeup and painted like blood running down his face - like from the movie The Birds, and he’s clawing at the window like they pecked his eyes out.” Clinton became a costumer for the epic productions Ken would put on as head of the theater department. “I mean it was like every show was La La Land … He choreographed them himself, he wrote the music himself.” Bradbury would write musicals in lieu of having to pay hefty royalty fees to perform the standards. Plus - he would write the shows with enough parts for half the school to be involved. “He was very good at building confidence in kids who didn’t have it - or maybe needed a little help that way," says Clinton.

Bradbury with students who took part in speech competitions, he has written more scripts for the contests than anyone else
Credit courtesy

“Kids want to be successful and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Tiddlywinks or football or theater, success is success. We think in America that means sports, that’s because our schools mostly offer sports … Of course I especially like theater because it’s a lifetime activity. You don’t see many people my age playing football, ya know," says Bradbury. His reputation for the Triopia productions will be talked about for decades to come, it seems. Some people would wait up to eight hours in line for tickets.

"To sit in a high school gym and see 50 or 100 kids on stage and the place is packed with people - that didn't happen (anywhere else), it especially doesn't happen anymore," says Phil Funkenbusch, a director and another staple in the central Illinois theater scene who once studied in New York City. He's worked with Ken Bradbury on numerous productions. "I think he hears so well, I think he listens ... He always gives characters a certain individuality, so it's not just a silly, funny thing, although his humor is beautiful," says Funkenbusch.

Those looking to preserve Illinois history have turned to him time and time again with projects. Funkenbusch directed Fritz Klein, an Abraham Lincoln interpreter, in a Bradbury production titled The Last Full Measure. It considers what Lincoln's thoughts might have been upon his death. "I've always thought Ken Bradbury was Illinois' best-kept secret. His newspaper columns are syndicated all around - and he writes these amazing pieces for kids," says Funkenbusch. In fact, Bradbury has written more monologues and sketches for kids to memorize as part of speech competitions than anyone else.

Bradbury’s columns are a showcase for his wit. One of the best known ones involves him writing under the pen name Frieda Mae Crump, who's a woman full of preposterous gossip. Another called Hooverville Drippings was run by a paper that had originally thought it was coming from a lady in a town they had forgotten about. "People were starting to drive around the county to find this town," says Bradbury with a laugh. Add that to Bradbury’s 300+ published theatrical pieces and 35 years as a teacher and you still don’t know all he’s done. He founded the Green Pastures Performing Arts Camp for kids, he performs on a riverboat in Peoria - telling stories, playing piano and singing tunes, and he's led a comedy troupe with a public access television show, called Let's Make Up.

John Love (L) & Jim Yale in a publicity photo for a Bradbury production called 'The Boys From Nantucket'
Credit courtesy

John Love was cast in his first Bradbury production while he was still in elementary school. He was part of the comedy improv group and is now working for Second City Theater in Chicago. He says about Ken, "He's definitely been like a mentor - but also one of my biggest supporters. He's always pushed me to do my best. He probably is the reason why I'm up here right now, doing what I'm doing. I definitely owe a lot to that guy." Love says outside of acting chops - he's learned from Bradbury how to treat others, "People approach him all the time, and even if he doesn't remember where he's met that person he is always very kind and gracious. That's what I've taken away from Ken the most, is just his welcoming personality and his love of all people."

Ken Bradbury has won numerous awards and has written over 300 theatrical pieces. With all his success and talent, I have to wonder if he ever considered moving to a bigger city. "No, I mean why? I can write a play next month and have it produced the following month. You can't do that in New York or Chicago ... I much prefer working out here. Years ago I had a very kind man come to me and he said ... I will bankroll you going to New York or Chicago for as long as you want to be there to try and make it.' And I did give it some serious thought ... but even then, I said no." So what's he most proud of? Ken says he's enjoyed the moments where the country folks get to share their art with a bigger city audience. "We took our play Abraham to the University of Illinois. We were getting ready to go on stage, and I was sitting backstage with the leading actor and he said 'Ken, isn't this weird? I grew up with cow manure on my feet - and you did too, neither of us had any theater training, and we're about to go do a play for the elite of the University of Illinois theater department' ... and I guess I enjoy things like that."

Another accomplishment that proves difficult to put into words, over the past months he's gone through intensive treatment for esophageal cancer. As he explains he, "Went through radiation, went through chemo - neither of which are good topics for theater - so far, I can't find a funny angle to that. And then a surgery at Barnes Hospital, but when they got in there they found only one little spot of cancer and they took it out. I plan to be getting better every day from now on."

Ken Bradbury performing on a showboat, 'The Spirit of Peoria'
Credit courtesy

Bradbury says his faith has been instrumental in getting him through, he's relied on it his whole life. He hopes to keep topping himself with every new production or column he writes. Ultimately though, he says his life work is not about him. "What thrills me is when one of my students hits the stage and wows an audience, and comes off thinking, 'Hey - I amount to something' ... That to me is the best part of theater ... that's when I'm a happy camper."