Richard Enders: Life on Stage

Richard Enders - Times SquareOn a recent December evening, Richard Enders sat by himself in a backstage dressing room at Utica’s Stanley Theater. He has a pre-show routine – review the script, shoulders to the ears, a deep breath in and out, and a little bit of arm shaking. Followed by “total fear” that he’s forgotten everything. “It never changes,” he says. “But it was worse when I performed Boz the first time, and I was afraid everybody would hate it.”

Enders celebrated his 73rd birthday in 2014, not bad for a sickly kid about whom doctors warned his parents, “Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make it to adulthood.” At this point, he’s best known for the role he’s played since 1992, the titular character in Players of Utica’s annual musical Scrooge; he’s also in his tenth year as host of Mohawk Valley Living, a weekly TV program “that explores the arts, entertainment, culture, and heritage of the greater Mohawk Valley region of New York State.” Although Richard Enders is probably the most recognized actor/celebrity in Utica, Mohawk Valley residents of a certain age also remember him as Oneida County’s District Attorney, a position he held from 1971-1981, winning three elections (he chose not to run a fourth time.)

Richard Donald Enders came into the world (“via c-section”) on December 15, 1941 at St. Elizabeth Hospital, “under the cross,” as his mother liked to remind him – referring to the large cross on the front of the building, right above the labor and delivery ward. Florence Moran was a raven-haired Irish beauty with a fierce jealous streak. “Which is ironic,” he recalls, “because I’ve never met a man more devoted to his wife than my father. He worshipped her – she could do no wrong.” Florence was born May 12, 1911; John Enders (“Jack”) was five years older, of German/French ancestry (the family surname was once spelled Endres.) They were married in St. Agnes church, one of the dozens of Roman Catholic parishes in Utica. Shortly after Richard was born, Jack enlisted in the Navy at age 36 to fight for his country, heading to the Pacific and leaving a heartbroken Florence with two young boys (Richard’s brother John, aka “Jackie,” was seven years older.) One of Richard’s earliest memories is meeting the bus at the corner of James and Seymour when his father returned four years later – Jack lifted his youngest son onto his shoulders and carried him home.

The Enders home in those days was 1569 Seymour Ave, in Utica’s Cornhill neighborhood, named literally for the corn fields that had been cleared for homes around the turn of the century. In front of every house was an elm tree. “It was amazing – the branches met over the street and it was like a cathedral. Part of Utica died when the elm trees died,” of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1950’s. As the trees were cut down they left deep holes for the kids to play in, “that must have been ten feet deep. Well, over my head at least.” Richard remembers Cornhill as a wonderful place to grow up. “It was a neighborhood – families living together and close to one another. I used to help my grandmother [Helen Moran] roll cigarettes on the old tin-topped kitchen table. We’d walk down to the James Street Theater for movies.” (Years later, Richard would make his musical-theater debut on the James Street stage.) “I returned to the old neighborhood recently. The owner took me through my old house and it all came back – like I was a boy again. It was wonderful.”

Richard and his brother attended Blessed Sacrament Elementary, between St. Agnes and St. Jane – five short blocks up from Seymour. The teachers were Franciscan nuns. “We got a phenomenal education. Grammar, handwriting (the Palmer Method), and they’d march us over to the church for confession once a week. I can’t say it enough. The dedication of those women amazes me.” He remembers one in particular: “Sister Mary James. She had strawberry blonde hair – I could tell by her eyebrows. She sent all of my schoolwork home when I got sick, and made sure I didn’t fall behind.”

When Richard was eight, in the winter of third grade, he fell down several times as the family walked to church. The doctor came to the house and diagnosed rheumatic fever, which confined Richard to bed for the next three months. Rheumatic fever affected 25 in 100,000 during the 1950’s, mostly children, and killed about 22,000 each year. Survivors often emerged with damaged heart valves. During Richard’s convalescence, Bob Vandenburg, a family friend, visited and without preamble or comment tossed a mutt onto the bed. Richard named her Boots, and she remained his constant companion during recovery. “One of the worst memories of my life is coming home from college and seeing her basket hanging in the garage. That’s how I found out she’d died.”

The illness shaped Richard’s life, in how he was treated by his family and how he regarded himself. “My Uncle Gene and Aunt Ann had a cottage on Oneida Lake. I remember my Uncle waking me early in the morning to go fishing, and my Aunt telling him, ‘Don’t wake little Richie. He’s not well, you know.’ I expected to die at any time.” Pause. “By the way, there’s nothing better in this world than freshly caught perch, fried in butter on an iron skillet.”

The Roman Catholic Church dominated Richard’s early life. “I loved church back then,” he says. “It was more theatrical – more mystical. The priests spoke a different language, and there were more candles, incense and pageantry – a lot of that has been lost.” Richard served as an altar boy at Blessed Sacrament Church, a responsibility he undertook with utmost sincerity. “You had to be careful – certain sins had to be confessed right away.” Many years later, he told the following anecdote in one of his plays. “It was High Mass, about fifteen minutes before. Impure thoughts were very bad, and I was having a bad morning. So I knew I wouldn’t be able to accept Communion, which was REALLY bad because my whole family would be there, and they’d want to know why. So I asked the priest to hear my confession. ‘NOW?’ ’Yes, please. It’s an emergency. Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been fifteen minutes since my last confession. I’ve had impure thoughts… twenty-two times.’” The story always brought down the house, mostly due to the way it was told, with a mischievous grin and the confidence of a performer who knows the audience gets what he’s talking about.

Richard Enders - Broadway

One mentor told Richard he would go on to be a priest or a teacher (he eventually did teach, first at Mohawk Valley Community College, and then at Utica College.) But the stage beckoned early. “I remember my first trip to New York City. I was seven or eight, and we were going to see the Easter show at Radio City.” Richard’s Uncle Cleade Enders lived in Manhattan, so Richard had heard of its wonders. Cleade was a renowned painter and also a gay man; he met his lifelong companion Anthony Holberton-Wood in 1953. “[My uncle and I] had an artistic connection. I always loved his visits, but I loved going to the city even more. I’ll never forget stepping out of Grand Central that first time – it exceeded my expectations.” Richard continues: “New York is one of my favorite places. The Edison Hotel, The Polish Tea Room – do you know the play named after it? No fair looking it up.” (Neil Simon’s 45 Seconds From Broadway, 2001.) As an adult, Richard would enjoy frequent Wednesday excursions to the city. He’d take the train from Albany, allowing him a few hours to work on his laptop, catch a matinee and supper, and return home that evening or the following afternoon. He was also a Tony voter for a time, during his tenure as President of Utica’s Broadway Theatre League. “Nothing better than attending theater as a Tony voter – they roll out the red carpet.”

Richard’s first stage role was in an elementary school production of Tom Sawyer. “I played the sissy. It was a terrible experience. I thought they’d given me the part because somebody thought I WAS a sissy. So I asked. Sister said it was because I was such a good actor.”

In 1955, the Enders family moved from Cornhill to 638 Daytonna St., in Deerfield. Although technically a Utica address, “My father was so proud he’d been able to move his family to the suburbs.” Richard and his older brother both attended high school at Utica Catholic Academy (“I think Jackie flunked out of UCA”), which was run by the Daughters of Charity. (“Floppy hats.”) One day, Sister Mary Joseph called him in to her office. “Richard, we want you to write the St. Patrick’s Day play, and act as the MC.” He protested, to no avail. (“When a nun has her mind made up…”) It was the first play he wrote.

Richard wanted to attend College of the Holy Cross, but he ended up at Niagara University when his father learned he’d been awarded a $200 scholarship. “I hated Niagara – it was too strict. I felt boxed in.” After his first year, he transferred to The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. Despite no childhood interest in politics (“I remember local politicians would hand out cards with their pictures on them, but not much else”) he majored in politics. “Not poly sci – it didn’t exist back then.” Richard counts his time at CUA as among “the best years of my life,” notwithstanding the daily fear inspired by “Angry Jesus” – the 3,610 square-foot Christ in Majesty mosaic by artist John de Rosen installed in 1959 in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. “That Jesus scared the crap out of me.”

In the early 1960’s, many lifelong Catholics were Democrats, and Richard accepted this political affiliation without thinking too much about it. He helped on John F. Kennedy’s Presidential campaign, and worked the tote board on election night. He was invited to JFK’s inauguration, but he overslept (“I might have been hung over”) and didn’t go. It’s one of his few regrets.

After graduating from CUA, Richard attended Cornell University, graduating in 1966 with a law degree. During his tenure, Richard edited the Cornell Law Quarterly, a task that absorbed him to the exclusion of his schoolwork. “They tried to kick me off law review when my grades were terrible, but I fought them. I argued that there was no rule about grades being a condition for working on the review, so they created one. It’s still in place – the Enders rule.” Richard was eventually allowed to work on the Quarterly again when his grades were no longer “markedly unsatisfactory.”

After college, Richard clerked for Wilson Cowen, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Claims. He believes he got the job because during the interview he told Cowen, “You’re much younger than I expected.” In any case, Cowen liked him – Richard wrote many of the judge’s opinions, which Cowen often delivered with minimal revision. Richard also rendered the decisive judgment when an Abraham Lincoln quote was being considered for inscription on a wall of the new Court of Claims building: “It is as much the duty of the government to render prompt justice against itself, in favor of citizens, as it is to administer the same, between private individuals.” Richard argued for the incorrect grammar (that final comma) because it’s what Lincoln wrote; the quote was inscribed accordingly. Cowen predicted that his clerk would become a teacher or a writer (interestingly, not a lawyer or a judge.) The judge also told Richard that he intended to set him up with President Johnson’s daughter, Luci. “How different my life might have been,” Richard says. In addition to the date, Richard was to pursue an international law degree at Cambridge. “But I came down with mono, and went home to Utica.”

Richard Enders - NYC

While Richard was recovering, Rita DeLeo, an old girlfriend, took him to the 1967 Boonville Fair. They stopped by Eileen Grems’ house, where Richard’s first view of his future wife was of her backside as she scrubbed the floor. They were married two years later, on October 11, 1969. John was born August 1, 1970; Susie arrived November 19, 1971; Jennifer came on January 12, 1975 and Kathleen on January 22, 1981. John has a hereditary eye disease called retinoschisis which has rendered him legally blind for most of his life; the disease is typically carried in female DNA and symptoms are usually exhibited in males. Richard often feels irrationally guilty for his son’s condition, as if he might have prevented it.

Richard was appointed Assistant District Attorney for Oneida County in 1967, by Arthur Darrigrand. Darrigrand was a Republican, so Richard changed his party affiliation out of loyalty (“It was the right thing to do.”) Darrigrand was elected county court judge in 1970, and he placed a surprise phone call to Richard: “How would you like to be District Attorney?” “Sure, why not?” Richard was 29, which incensed some, who were convinced he was anointed because of family connections. Bill Bryant wrote a letter to the editor of the Utica Observer-Dispatch, stating that Richard was the nephew of the county Republican chairman. It was untrue, and Richard insisted on a retraction, which Bryant did. (Bryant was later elected Oneida County Executive.)

D.A. Enders was known for being tough, especially against drunken driving. His campaign in 1974 was “the worst. They were out to get me.” Nevertheless, he won again, and yet again in 1978. Another cause he championed was victims’ rights, and he considers that and his efforts against DWI a fitting legacy. Although Utica has been widely known as a mob town (“Sin City”), Richard doesn’t have much to say about that. “A myth,” he grins. “Although Utica once had the best brothels east of the Mississippi. I remember guys in high school would go over to Ma Davis’ place during lunch, and come back with huge smiles on their faces. Not me, of course.” He was once threatened with contempt of court by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. There was a disagreement about some pornographic films that had been seized in Utica according to NYS law. The federal government wanted the films, and Enders wouldn’t turn them over. He went to Manhattan, where a judge asked him, “Are you telling me that the New York Court of Appeals is of higher stature than the U.S. Court of Appeals?” “Yes, Your Honor.” He reflects, “It wasn’t about pornography – I didn’t care about that. It was a matter of state’s rights.”

In 1981, Richard resigned from District Attorney, and entered private practice. He’d had enough of politics; his family wanted a break. In 1985, he saw an audition notice for Players of Utica in the newspaper. “The play was On Golden Pond. I walked up and down Oxford Road, trying to get up the nerve to go in for the audition. I finally went in, and this little guy was sitting cross-legged on the stage. That’s when I met Peter Loftus.” Richard was cast as Billy Ray, the dentist. “Years later, I asked Peter why he cast me. He said it was because I had nice teeth, and I looked like a dentist.” Their partnership has spanned dozens of productions, and their friendship has included countless trips to NYC, as well as London and Ireland. “We saw Les Misérables in London, one of the best theatrical experiences of my life. Afterward, I might have had a few too many pints of Guinness, and for the life of me, I couldn’t find my way back to our hotel. I couldn’t even remember the name of the hotel, which was no help to the taxi driver. So I wandered around until I recognized it.”

On Golden Pond hooked him. That same year, Richard auditioned for Scrooge, a musical version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, also directed by Loftus. He’s appeared in the production almost every year since, playing Tom Jenkins, Gentleman One, Marley, and Casket Carrier. In the early 1990’s, Richard took over as Ebenezer Scrooge, a part he isn’t yet ready to relinquish. He’s played many other roles, including favorites Reverend Hale in The Crucible, Mr. Brink in On Borrowed Time (he was sick during the run, and kept an emergency bucket in the branches of the onstage tree his character became trapped in), and Elvis-coiffed evangelist Harley Goodrich in St. Hugo of Central Park, which was produced by Spring Farm CARES at UrbanStages in NYC. His all-time favorite role is Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which was his first musical (at Utica’s James Street Theater); he played the part twice more after that.

In the autumn of 1988, Richard was in rehearsals for Deathtrap when his childhood disease struck again, in the form of congestive heart failure. “I was worried that Peter would never cast me again,” he says. More heart-related episodes followed, including chronic shortness of breath and fainting spells; he doesn’t remember many specifics of those years, just a few “vivid memories – arrhythmia and being bloated and unable to breathe. The emergency room. Paddles to the chest. Feeling like death was around the corner. Scared shitless. Being cardioverted. Feeling like a new man when I could breathe normally again. I’m forever thankful for a doctor by the name of Ashok R. Patel.” Richard had mitral valve replacement surgery in 1995, at New England Medical Center in Boston. “They offered me a choice between a St. Jude’s valve and a pig’s valve. Not a good choice if you’re Jewish.” Today, the St. Jude’s valve ticks audibly in his chest, something his companions note although he rarely hears it himself. The night before his surgery, the hospital chaplain asked if he’d like to receive the Sacrament of Extreme Unction (Anointing of the Sick). Richard said yes, and the chaplain asked to hear his confession. “I don’t have to make a confession to receive Extreme Unction,” Richard protested, becoming agitated. “Would you have given me the sacrament if I’d been asleep?” The chaplain said he would have, but insisted on the confession. Monitors started beeping in alarm. Eileen placed a frantic call to Rev. Paul Drobin, then pastor at St. John the Evangelist in New Hartford; he calmed Richard and administered the sacrament virtually, over the phone. “Father Drobin probably saved my life that night.”

In the late 1990’s, Richard wrote a one-man show: Charles Dickens, Sketches of Boz (rhymes with nose), which premiered at Spring Farm CARES, in Clinton, NY on February 2, 1997 – Dickens’ birthday. He continued to perform the show around the greater Utica area, and eventually presented it at The Irish Arts Center in New York City. During one of his Wednesday afternoon trips, Richard stopped in to St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, which hosted the Off-Broadway Theatre at St. Clement’s (on Sundays, an altar was placed in front of whatever set was currently on the stage.) The Reverend Barbara Crafton read Richard’s script while he waited, and said “Oh, yes. I’d like to produce this.” The show was scheduled to open December 15, 2000 – Richard’s 59th birthday. (Even more significant because Dickens had died at 58, an omen to Richard.) Unfortunately, another show was held over at St. Clement’s, which forced the production to move uptown. (A journal of that week is recorded here.)

The enthusiastic public reception of Boz encouraged Richard to keep writing. A partial bibliography includes Patent Pending – Conversations With my Father (2002); C is for Cauliflower (2003); Senior Moment (2005); Mark Twain, Live @ The Apollo (2006); and Bluetooth Diaries (2007). All of these were performed by Richard, on stages throughout the Mohawk Valley region. He has also published a book on elder law called Nunc Pro Tunc (“Now For Then”).

In late 2002, Richard found himself in the hospital again, this time with bladder cancer. His brother Jackie had died in 1994 from colon cancer (“Stubborn, stubborn man. He refused to have a colonoscopy. He’d probably still be alive today…”) Richard’s doctor told him it was the best bad news he could get – “If you’re going to get cancer, this is the one you want.” He went to Sloan Kettering in NYC for surgery, and remains cancer-free today. Bonus: the annual checkups provide an excuse to see a few shows while he’s in the city.

Richard on the Beach

In 2005, Richard was contacted by Lance and Sharry Whitney, who were developing a television program highlighting arts, culture and dining in the Mohawk Valley. Richard agreed, and cultivated an on-air persona that viewers came to associate with “the best in the area.” Restaurants could expect an influx of new patrons after being featured on the show. One episode was taped at the Enchanted Forest water theme park, and Richard memorably went down the longest water slide fully clothed in his trademark blue Oxford and khaki pants (“It was terrifying. I have no idea why I insisted on doing that.”) At this writing, the show is in its tenth year, 476 episodes produced and counting.

Florence Enders died in 1997, at 86. Jack died soon after, in 1998. He was 92. “My father was the finest man I ever knew. Just before he died, he told me he was going to hell for the men he killed during the war. He carried that guilt until his last breath. I told him that they had wanted to kill him, which would have left us without a husband and father. He did what he had to do. I think it made him feel a little better.” And so the sickly boy (“He’s not well, you know”) outlived the rest of his immediate family. Richard considers himself fortunate that his wife and children are healthy and close – his Clinton home is regularly filled with grandchildren and step-grandchildren. “It’s been a very good life,” he says. “I wouldn’t change any of it.”

* * * * *

I met Richard in the early 1990’s when I did the lighting for Scrooge, the first time it was presented at the Stanley Theater. We became friends when he asked me to come with him to NYC for Sketches of Boz, in 2000. But for me, the moment that cemented our relationship was in 2001. I was singing with a church rock band that was performing an outdoor concert. There was no crowd – just a dozen people or so, most of whom weren’t even from our church. But Richard was there. I’d mentioned it to him, and he showed up. He still attends almost every theatrical event in town to support his friends.

Richard’s acting is sometimes criticized by people who think he’s “always Richard.” Which is true, in the same way that Clark Gable was always Clark Gable, or Robert Redford is always playing some riff on being Robert Redford. I think Richard has been his best when he’s most embraced the persona he’s known for, and had fun with the audience. His memory plays are like stand-up comedy, and might be the best and truest performances I’ve seen him give. Some actors transform themselves and channel entirely different personas, but that’s not the only definition of a great performer. Some of the best are beloved just for being themselves, and doing it well.

When Richard first told me he was going to write and perform a play Off-Broadway, I thought to myself, “Sure you will.” But he did it. Charles Dickens, Sketches of Boz is, in my opinion, his best written work. I enjoy the surreality of the transitions between present-day lecturer, to Dickens himself, to the enactments of various scenes from the novels. It’s also the only Enders play I’d like to see another performer try – most of the others are autobiographical, and even Mark Twain, Live @ The Apollo is intimately linked to Richard’s interpretation of Twain. The TV work doesn’t captivate me, although I recognize how much the audience appreciates it, and there is value in celebrating the region’s heritage, and boosting interest in local arts and dining.

Richard and I performed together only once, in a take-off on an old Stan Freeberg piece called Elderly Man River. I played a singer, trying to perform Old Man River, and Richard played himself, a lawyer who kept interrupting to correct my grammar and ensure the lyrics were politically correct. The song became mangled, of course (“Elderly Person River…He must know something but he doesn’t say anything…”) Finally, I stormed off the stage and Richard took the spotlight and sang the song as originally written, with a big grin on his face. It’s the best singing I’ve heard him do.

We’ve kept a weekly Friday lunch date for the past ten years, which is where I gathered much of what I’ve shared in this piece. As I started writing things down, Richard frequently protested, “You can’t write THAT!” Which is probably true – if I were to write a two-person play, Fridays With Richard, it would be largely philosophical and far more profane than what is here, and might challenge the altar boy image so many have cherished. But I wanted to get some of the stories down, at least (the play will have to wait.) Richard has been a good and loyal friend, and an always-interesting companion. To me, he is the definition of a “good man.”

“Now,” I said, as we pushed our plates aside and I started typing again. “I really want to get a few Utica gangster stories down, from when you were D.A. Just help me with the names and dates.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Richard answered, eyes twinkling. “Those are made-up stories. You shouldn’t confuse myth and reality.”

And he laughed.

Richard Enders - Brooklyn Bridge