Stage & Dance

Rich Copley: Colonel Sanders lives in new Kentucky Chautauqua lineup

In coming up with his portrayal of Col. Harland Sanders, L. Henry Dowell had to forgo the  colorful language the KFC founder often used.
In coming up with his portrayal of Col. Harland Sanders, L. Henry Dowell had to forgo the colorful language the KFC founder often used. Lexington Herald-Leader

In L. Henry Dowell's performance, the story of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders has many flavors, including luck, loss, confidence and humility.

But in the end, there is one basic question.

"What are the 11 herbs and spices?" a woman asks.

Dowell laughs. "They're all in your kitchen cabinet. Open it up, and there they are," he says, being coy beyond that.

Dowell, of course, doesn't know the closely guarded secret, but that won't stop him from pretending when he plays Sanders for the Kentucky Humanities Council's 20-character Chautauqua program.

Chautauqua's actors create monologues to tell their characters' stories and prepare to answer post-performance questions in character. The actors are available for hire for meetings, schools or other venues.

The characters range from towering figures in history — Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay — to lesser-known but still important characters, including former slave Dinnie Thompson, whose story was preserved by a social worker, and Civil War soldier Johnny Green, who kept a detailed journal of his years fighting for the Confederate Army.

Every two years, the council adds six new characters to the lineup. This year they are Sanders and:

■ The Rev. Newton Bush of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry in the Civil War. Played by Robert Bell.

■ Kentucky's first governor, Isaac Shelby. Played by Mel Hankla.

■ Pvt. William Greathouse, who fought the British in Canada as part of a militia regimen in 1813. Played by Harry Smith.

■ Abolitionist and Berea College founder John G. Fee. Played by Obadiah Ewing-Roush.

■ Mary Settles, the last survivor of the Pleasant Hill Shakers. Played by Janet Scott.

"You are what I call a super brand," Julie Klier, who markets the Chautauqua performers for the Humanities Council, told Dowell during a critique after his performance at the final review of the six new performers. They presented their pieces Wednesday to Humanities Council leaders, and to theater and history experts to try to get their acts ready for the road.

The observers helped performers navigate tricky issues. For example: How can a character relay her legacy when she did not live to see what it was, although it is important to mention in a historical accounting of that character?

"Maybe she could have a vision," one observer tells Scott, who is trying to relay that Pleasant Hill became an educational center about Shaker culture several decades after Settles' death.

"I write plays and I write academic pieces, and what we have here is a hybrid," Scott says during the critique.

Many topics discussed are theatrical, although the performers have to be well versed on their characters — in Scott's case, talking about Settles' unorthodox religious views.

Dowell had to allude to Sanders' salty language without uttering much of it, which would be verboten with most school and community groups that would book him.

"I tried sounding this out with people to see if people had personal knowledge of him," says Dowell, who lives in London. "And 99 percent of the people I talked to said, 'That man sure could cuss.'"

Like other Chautauqua pieces, Sanders' story took listeners into eras long before modern technology or even major highways. Part of the Sanders' story was how the building of Interstate 75 doomed his restaurant in Corbin, before Kentucky Fried Chicken became a global chain and made him one of the biggest icons in fast food — and Kentucky — history.

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