Bryan Haislip was 12 years old when MGM released “The Wizard of Oz” on Jan. 1, 1939.
Seventy-five years later, Haislip – now 87 – helped the Tar River Players celebrate the classic film’s silver anniversary in a stage version of the family favorite.
Manning the production’s title role, Haislip was the oldest member of a 30-person cast that ranged in age from 5-87 – including 20 who were 14 and younger.
At a point in life where many spend most of their time in a rocking chair remembering their lives or napping with a fishing pole in their hands, Haislip spent the past month or so traipsing about the stage at Edgecombe Community College’s Keihin Auditorium in nightly rehearsals and this past week’s performances.
“This has been a good experience for me,” Haislip said. “It helps keep me young. I’m glad to have the Tar River Players around.”
A newspaperman, whose career began in 1948 as a reporter with the Raleigh News & Observer and ended in 1989 when he retired as an editorial writer and editorial page associate editor for the Winston-Salem Journal, Haislip also spent some time in public relations during his professional life.
After his wife’s death in 1997, Haislip returned to Eastern North Carolina in 2000 and took up residence in Tarboro.
The Tar River Players came calling eight years later when director Brian Lampkin needed the part of a reporter filled for a production of “Inherit the Wind,” and reignited Haislip’s flame for theater that sparked during his first two years of college at Atlantic Christian College – now Barton College – in Wilson.
Since then, Haislip has appeared in seven Tar River Players productions – including roles in “An Evening in Mayberry” (2009), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (2010), “A Christmas Carol (2011, 2012), “Chronicles of Narnia” (2012) and “The Odd Couple” (2013).
Having played both Jacob Marley and Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” guardian angel Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and most recently Professor Marvel and the Wizard, Haislip thrives on the opportunity community theatre offers.
“I like being somebody else,” he said. “I get tired of being Bryan all the time. It is an outlet I feel very fortunate to have. It helps keep me young and active.
“Also, becoming another person on stage is a great way to find yourself.”
Ironically, Haislip’s onstage journey to find himself has led to what he pretty much knew all along – creating characters was something he had effectively been doing all his life.
A native of Martin County, Haislip grew up on a farm that was five miles from town. At that time, he said, those five miles were a long way and his family was pretty much sequestered.
His brothers partnered up, as did his sisters, leaving him literally in the middle to fend for himself for things to do and people to do them with.
“I had to use my imagination to make up playmates and friends, as well as things to do,” Haislip said.
Once in the professional world, he readily admitted to finding those creative outlets in his positions with newspapers and public relations – accounting for a 60-year hiatus from the stage.
After not being involved in theater when he first retired, Haislip jumped back into it with both feet when the opportunity arose in Tarboro.
And his return to the stage filled perhaps a more important purpose than just a creative outlet.
“I saw and still see men 10 and 15 years younger than me walking around like it’s the end of the line,” Haislip said. “There is no light in their eyes. They have nothing to live for.
“I vowed that wasn’t going to happen to me. Like I said, theater helps keep me young.”
With his 88th birthday coming in August, Haislip has no plans of slowing down – especially on the stage.
Thankful to have the Players around as a creative outlet, he also sees the positives community theater offers to the generations who have followed him – particularly after taking part with the youngsters in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I’m glad we have the Tar River Players,” he said. “It’s good to see kids get introduced to theater at the right time in their lives for it to do the most good for them throughout their lives.
“As for me? I have no plans of stopping anytime soon.”