Stationed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai from 1956 to 1958, Marine Corps member and Bluffton native Ed Higgins was awaiting deployment to the South Pacific.
Though Higgins knew that deployment had been delayed for the purpose of shooting a film, he could never have known that of all the sailors and Marines amassed as extras, it would be his face that made it to the screen.
And he didn't know for quite some time. It wasn't until Higgins saw Rogers and Hammerstein's “South Pacific” in theaters months later that he was astonished to see himself in the background of a shot in which plantation owner Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi) enters with a bouquet of roses for war nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), fresh off her iconic “Honeybun” song and dance.
Seventy-three years later, the self-effacing Higgins, a lifelong resident of Bluffton (with the exception of his two years in the Marine Corps) and a recent retiree from the local plumbing shop, still doesn't see his brush with Hollywood's halcyon days as anything to write home about.
“I was in the movies and didn't know it,” Higgins said. “I didn't even meet Mitzi (Gaynor); I was in the mess hall when she came to eat with the officers, but I never met her. Everybody's making a big deal that I was in it when I didn't do anything but just stand there.”
Higgins may be dismissive of his cameo in the film, but when it dawned on Wells Community Theater founding board member Sue Coolman, herself a daughter of a World War II veteran stationed in the South Pacific, the chance to mount a revival of the beloved musical seemed just too opportune to pass up.
“It was just an incredible thing to find out that somebody that I actually knew here in Bluffton was in one of my favorite movies,” Coolman said. “And Rogers and Hammerstein just can't be touched when it comes to musical scores. We had to do it.”
South Pacific will make its triumphant return to Indiana theaters this weekend on the stage of Life Community Church in Bluffton, where Coolman, a retired music teacher of 33 years, will direct both the 15-piece orchestra and the 45-member cast in a spirited revival.
The cast and orchestra comprise a hodgepodge of veterans and newcomers. Among their ranks are Joe Welches, a familiar face in Wells Community Theater, slated to portray Emile de Becque, and Jeanette Lundine, a music teacher from East Allen County Schools, making her return to the stage after a long absence as Nellie Forbush.
For Higgins, things have come full circle. Where once he stood in the background of “Honeybun,” this weekend he'll play the piano accompaniment of Gaynor's legendary number for the Bluffton production.
A so-called “background dinner music” enthusiast often found behind the piano at nursing homes and 50th anniversary parties, Higgins began lessons at age 8, but he doesn't exactly practice with military discipline. In fact, he claims he never practices.
Though Coolman began her theater career in elementary school and has directed Wells Community Theater since its inception, she cites this weekend's remounting of “South Pacific” as among the more important productions of her career.
“A generation has gone by since ‘South Pacific' has been around in this vicinity,” Coolman said. “I just feel that it's time to tell the story again.”