ALBANY — Everyone has a little Charlie Brown in them.
The little boy Charles Shultz introduced to the world more than 50 years ago is a caricature of childhood. All the trivial challenges of growing up — school, girls, sports, plays — and the attempt of overcoming young insecurities. His daily cartoon strip was published in more than 2,500 newspapers, and boasted more than 350,000 readers worldwide. Millions continue to sit and watch the animated specials on broadcast television each holiday season.
Next Wednesday, Dec.18, Gershwin Entertainment rolls its traveling production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas Live On Stage” into the Palace Theatre. The live-action performance is a fresh take on a classic storyline. It encompasses favorite scenes from the original animated television show, and expands the storyline into greater detail.
Hays Hankinson says he can relate to Charlie Brown. The actor tasked with portraying the beloved cartoon character landed the lead role in his first professional production since graduating from Savannah College Art and Design. He was told he had a look about him, that he was the answer to their prayers.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Hankinson said while laughing, ”because that is definitely not my thought process.”
Hankinson grew up in Thomasville, a small Georgia city just north of the Florida panhandle. A region fanatic about its collegiate sports, people often identify themselves by Bulldog, Gator or War Eagle. Nonetheless, Hankinson said his hometown was “pretty good” at supporting the arts.
The actor’s earliest memories involve him chasing after his older sister to her dance recitals. She would perform. He would watch and wish he could dance, too. While attending church, he would sing in the choir. He was 7 years old when he remembers observing a woman crying after he had finished a solo. That was his epiphany.
“Okay. I like this,” he said. “This is cool. I think I made her feel something.”
Aside from being home to a 300-year-old oak tree, Thomasville holds the distinction of producing several star football players, including Heisman Trophy-winner, Charlie Ward. Boys growing up play sports, and Hankinson said he felt that pressure.
“Most boys were playing football, soccer and baseball,” Hankinson said, “and I was taking dance classes, going to drama class.” He laughs as he continues to recall how he landed his role. Though he may come across as charismatic and loud, he’s not “super confident” in everyday life. “I think that’s another reason why I relate to Charlie Brown. He feels like he doesn’t receive the love he thinks he might deserve. But, in the end, they always come together and celebrate him in some sort of way.”
He said he also relates to Charlie Brown in having a Lucy Van Pelt. His best friend, Rachael Willis continues to push him towards his goals. Unlike Lucy, she doesn’t pull the football away.
“She was always the person right there beside me, saying, ‘If this is what you want to pursue, go for it.’” said Hankinson. “So, more of a Good Lucy than a Mean Lucy. I definitely had someone pushing me along the way.”
“A Charlie Brown Christmas Live On Stage” brings everyone’s favorite characters to life, and brings back the original Vince Guaraldi musical score. For Hankinson, he said it gives adults a chance to revisit something familiar, while showing younger audiences the right way to treat one another. The production comes together at the end with an interactive singalong with the cast, too.
“I just think it’s a great thing for the whole family to come see,” he said.