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Ernie Harwell still inspires man who plays him

Next week, as he did last summer and the summer before, Peter Carey will drive into Detroit, listening to old recordings of Ernie Harwell broadcasts.

He will mimic what he hears, especially the Georgia twang, taking note to drop the “r,” so that “Tigers” sounds like “Tigahs.”

When he arrives at the City Theatre, he will sit in front of a dressing room mirror. He will remember the times he personally spent with Ernie, the booth they shared on a movie set, the work they shared in commercials, the time Carey introduced Harwell “with an Ernie imitation” at a charity event.

Carey will focus on how humble Ernie was, how he always looked down and said “I’m honahhed” (I’m honored) whenever Carey gushed with compliments.

He will try to absorb that humility.

Then Carey, who at 59 is lean, handsome and physically fit, will begin a transformation, one he has done in multiple dressing rooms over multiple summers.

He will become 91 years old.

He will become Ernie.

A legendary role

How does one man become another?

“It begins with the belly,” Carey explains.

The “belly” is a padded T-shirt with stuffing sewn inside, which adds the slight sag look of an extra 25 pounds. It’s needed, since Carey (thanks to yoga and paddleboarding) has a 31 inch-waist.

“Next come the gray slacks and the black shoes,” Carey says. “They’re loafers. But we were told that Ernie would never wear shoes with tassels, so they have no tassels.”

After that, an assistant stage manager will put silver streaks into Carey’s sandy-blond hair, and Carey will apply facial makeup that outlines every crevice and crow’s-foot, trying to make himself look older.

All the while, he will be saying Ernie-isms.

“Two for the price of one!… Strike three! He stood there like the house by the side of the road….”

Next he’ll put on glasses and the famous Greek fisherman’s cap, which Ernie wore in the latter stage of his career. Then Carey will walk out on an empty stage — wearing only the pants, shoes, fake belly, hat and glasses — and see how he looks to the stage manager in the back of the theater. Old enough? Real enough?

Once satisfied, Carey will finish dressing. A blue and white pinstripe shirt, a blue blazer, a red tie. Then he’ll practice Ernie’s laugh, the slightly giggly “heh-heh-heh.” He will walk around the room, stiffening up, hunching forward as if with age, clenching fists behind his back and rocking on the heels of his feet, as Ernie was prone to do.

Finally, when the audience is seated, he will turn to his fellow actor, T.J. Corbett, who plays a mystical boy in the show, and with hands on each other’s shoulders, they will make a visual and emotional connection, say the words “Let’s go,” and Carey will step alone into the wing, which is dark.

The stage will alight with old footage of Harwell, and Carey will whisper along with Ernie’s famous voice, the quote from Song of Solomon that began each of his 42 seasons with the Tigers:

“For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone … and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land…”

Better to be kind than right

Ernie Harwell died six years ago. Yet in so many ways, he lives on; in old clips, in the statue at Comerica Park, in his name on the brick wall beyond centerfield.

The play “Ernie,” which I wrote after a request from the man himself before he died, was supposed to run for three weeks. It is now entering its sixth season — playing this summer in Detroit, East Lansing and Traverse City. I can’t explain it. And yet, in watching Carey, who took over the role three years ago from the well-respected actor Will Young, I think I’ve learned something.

As this world gets uglier and more complicated, people yearn for folks like Ernie, and how he comported himself. It reminds us of a simpler and more civil time.

Carey, a former radio host, captures Harwell with eerie precision. But it’s more than imitation. He chokes up when he reads Harwell’s famous poem. He gets chills when he recites lines about a child seeing a baseball field for the first time.

“It’s such an honor to play Ernie, and to see how people react,” he says. “Many of them have tears in their eyes.”

How does one man become another? It may start with the belly. But it ends with the spirit. We were lucky to have Harwell to set an example. And after six years of performances like Carey’s, one thing seems obvious: Everyone who tries to be like Ernie is somehow the better for it.

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