Kinard Fite – A Few Thoughts and Memories

I was saddened to hear of Kinard’s passing on September 7, 2012; for many months the man has been on my mind. Over the years I’d lost track of him, not knowing how to contact him. But after hearing that he did not wish for me to accompany him to the 20th Anniversary production of Sweeney ToddI thought it was best to let well enough alone.

I first met Kinard in 1986. He and I were in that year’s Sanger Theater Production of OliverHe played Mr. Sowerberry to my Artful Dodger – a stretch if ever there was one…I was 34 at the time. LOL. That production led to another – a musical version of The Christmas Carol which he directed, casting me as mean ol’ Mr. Scrooge. And thus began a most interesting relationship.

Kinard was always kind, casting me in many of his grand, over the top productions: Cabaret (another stretch since I don’t sing or dance to well. LOL) Show BoatSweeney ToddGuys and Dolls, to name a few. There were times when he exasperated me to no end with his meticulous attention to detail. But I always knew that in the end, whatever the problems during production, said production would be the finest amateur theatrics the Mississippi Gulf Coast had ever seen. I was proud – very proud – to say I was in a KNS Show!

During that time, Kinard allowed me to enter his inner circle; said circle small, exclusive, and not easily accessed. It was there that I discovered the inner man, the man who few knew, or were allowed to know. More times that I can count, we dined at the Bombay Bicycle Club, or strolled the Biloxi streets in the cool of a Fall evening. There were a slew of Saturday morning motor trips to New Orleans, which were always a delight! Whenever I’d pick him up, he always had a colorful bag filled with strange, but entertaining objects: note cards on which were written his thoughts, or a bit of poetry, or a line from some obscure play; some tasty morsel or a bit of fresh baked bread; a lady’s high-heal shoe filled with artificial flowers or peacock feathers; and there were always his notebooks for KNS’s next production. “AWK,” he would say, “What do you think of this? Would such-and-such be better or worse?” AWK! No one had ever called me by my initials. I thought that was cool. And for that matter, I thought the fat little bald man with piercing blue eyes and a glare that could cut diamonds was just that too – cool!

Upon our arrival in the city, he always took me to the most evocative places – the old “Lavender District” in the French Quarter was a personal favorite. He told me that back in the day the area was where the city’s gay population had lived and hung out. He showed me where Tennessee Williams once lived; told a delightful tale concerning an old light fixture that once hung near the front door of Mr. Williams’ house. It was Mexican in design, made of multi-colored stained glass. When it was on in the evenings, it meant Mr. Williams was at home and was receiving – as it were – guests. Kinard said he had been one of those guests. To a country boy at heart, coming from small town America, I was enthralled by it all. We always ate at a delightful hole in the wall, embedded deep within the French Quarter on a back street. The restaurant had a French name that I can’t pronounce, much less spell. LOL .

But it was during our return trips at night that he often turned melancholy. He spoke of old lovers, life in the 50s and early 60s, and at times, his ex-wife, his child, and his family – a source of pride and remorse. Our little outings always ended with: “AWK, I’ll call you…” Which he did when he got home , and would continued to do almost every day for weeks thereafter. I always came away from those times with Kinard thinking I’d just experienced something out of the ordinary, strangely fascinating, but always uplifting, my knowledge broadened, my horizons expanded.

And then there was the first time he allowed me entrance into his house; not something that all were allowed to do. We always entered via the back door, where a note pad and pencil were attached to the door molding. With a creak, the back door slowing opened. I was agog! I thought I’d entered the home of the Mad Hatter, with accouterments purloined from The Old Curiosity Shop. I almost expected to see a male version of Miss Havisham waltzing toward us, reeking of stale rose water and brittle lace. But no such apparition appeared, only dear ol’ Kinard shuffling around in a tattered silk kimono, into which he had changed upon our arrival. The walls of his kitchen were covered in a menagerie of fascinating objects: a spindle from the grand staircase of the old St. Louis Hotel in New Orleans; a large poster of James Dean, augmented with a string of white Christmas lights; and a myriad of notes that people had left on his back door, along with old newspaper clippings and greeting cards. The sink was filled with dirty dishes, the stove top covered with cans of scented candle wax and the occasional ancient cooking pot. Then there was the bedroom: bed high up off the floor, stacked up on concrete blocks, a large rectangular mirror as a headboard; a rickety bookcase, filled to overflowing; a radio tuned to PRM, classical music filling the air. There were other rooms as well: a study, dining room, living room, and front bed room; all the rooms crammed-packed with old costumes, books, furniture, and my favorite – “sculptures” made of Waffle House to-go boxes. Those were just tooooo funny, and sooooo Kinard!

But the man did have his demons.

And many times those demons took us to sad, dark places from which I feared we’d never return. Those demons oft times materialized in the form of anger, or bitterness, or just a sticky malaise that was hard to breech, much less understand. I finally realized that Kinard’s demons were part of his genius – you could not have one without the other. And if you could not accept the demons, your time with him was short. I lasted longer than most, but alas, the demons won. They finally encrusted his mind, causing him to lash out at others with vicious cruelty and acidic criticisms. I saw dear old friends attempt help, only to be rebuffed. He was like a werewolf, killing the very people he loved the most and that loved him. I wanted to help, but did not know how. I wanted to reach into that brilliant, hard head of his and decapitate each of his demons, freeing him from their grip. But that was never meant to be. And thus we parted.

I last saw Kinard in the tumultuous months following the great storm of ‘05, when my dear Mississippi Gulf Coast was irrevocably change forever. He was in Dr. William Sams’ office in Gulfport. I’d taken Mother for her check-up, and when we were walking down the hall, I saw that dear ol’ bald head. When he saw me, I guess he thought I’d not seen him first – he acted as if he were asleep. I thought, “Oh! No you don’t…you dear ol’ codger you!” I bounced up, shook him awake, and planted a big ol’ smacker-roo right on top of his old bald head. “AWK, fancy meeting you here,” he said in that droll voice of his, glasses precariously perched on his nose. After a few pleasantries, we told each other goodbye, and as I looked back at the old man sitting in the chair, a tear filled my eye. I thought of all that could have been, should have been; all that I could have learned, and all that I could have created under his tutelage. But his demons – and mine – did not allow for that, and for that I am truly sorry. I can only hope that in his last days, Kinard made his peace with his Maker. And perhaps if he did, he’s experiencing an eternity, not one filled with demons, but one filled the joy, happiness, and love that he longed for on this side of Jordan, never quite found, but never gave up the hope of finding those human emotions that we hold so dear. Goodbye to you – my dear, long lost friend.