I got to sit in on a rehearsal for “Ernie” this past week. It is a wonderful perk of creating a play, the open invitation to watch actors work. Like hearing the legendary Ernie Harwell himself, the production, for me, is like going back in time.
Especially when the players take the stage.
“Ernie,” originally planned to run for three weeks, is now entering its fifth season at the City Theatre in downtown Detroit. In all that time, there have been three actors — total. Two men who played Ernie.
And one who played “the boy.”
That role, which officially carries no name (just “the boy”), has been filled every show, without a single absence, by a young man named TJ Corbett.
Well. Not as “young” as he once was.
When Corbett first showed up for an audition, he was working in a toy and hobby store in St. Clair Shores. He was 23 and looked 14. Today he is 29 and looks, thankfully … 14.
“I do have to shave every day now,” he jokes. ”Even though it’s mostly blond peach fuzz.”
The actor, whose countenance is eternally upbeat (if the sun had a smiling face, it would look like TJ Corbett), plays the role of a magical boy who cajoles Ernie Harwell into doing one last broadcast, the “broadcast of his life.” Corbett is a whirling dervish, tweaking Ernie’s memory banks, delighting in every story the elderly baseball announcer recounts.
After watching the rehearsal (the show opens Thursday night), I happened to ask Corbett how his life has changed since he created the role in 2011.
And I realized that, inadvertently, Ernie Harwell lives on every night this kid takes the stage.
Lessons of a legend
“I really only knew the name Ernie Harwell when I auditioned,” Corbett says. “But once I heard his voice, I said, ‘Oh, this is the guy my dad and my uncles and grandfathers had on the radio in summers in the backyard.’ ”
Corbett was just a teenager when Harwell retired from the Tigers booth. And he was a young father with a 11/2-year-old son when he auditioned.
But since playing alongside an “Ernie” for five years (and hundreds of performances) he feels like a late-arriving scholar.
“People think I’m an expert on baseball now,” he says. “I tell them I’m more like an expert on Ernie Harwell, although I mostly know what’s in the script — and all the stories I’ve now heard.”
He has met Lulu Harwell, Ernie’s widow, multiple times, as well as Paul Carey, Ernie’s longtime radio partner, and many former Tigers players and Harwell broadcast acquaintances.
And night after night, he hears 85 minutes worth of Ernie-isms, which has led to an epiphany.
“Sometimes I actually find myself saying, ‘What would Ernie Harwell do in a situation like this?’ ” Corbett says. “He’s become a moral compass, I guess. He reminds me that good people — just simple, good people — still exist in the world, that they’re not something you only see in movies or plays. This play is about a real, honest-to-God good person.”
A voice for the ages
Next week is Major League Baseball’s annual All-Star Game. Fifty-seven years ago, Ernie Harwell was its broadcaster.
Fifty-five years ago, he began calling Tigers games.
Five years ago, he died of bile duct cancer.
Most voices are silenced when they can no longer speak. But some go on even after the vocal cords are laid to rest.
Harwell’s is one such voice. We cherish his replays. We want to hear him calling a batter out at the plate “for excessive window shopping” or describing a double play as “two for the price of one.”
Corbett gets to hear that night after night. He gets to hear Ernie tell him “believe in yourself; God has a plan for everybody” or “given a choice between being right or kind, I find it’s better to be kind.”
It’s an unintended benefit of doing a play, Corbett says. And yet another way in which Harwell’s voice, 57 years from that All-Star Game, 13 years from the booth, five years from this Earth, still has a nightly effect on someone.
Shaving every day is a small price to pay.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.