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Flashback: Dick Van Dyke found his footing on the stage in his beloved hometown of Danville

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It was standing room only at Danville High School’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Crowds are not unusual at school performances in this arts-loving Illinois town, but the mood was jubilant that night in April 2004.

As the orchestra began the prelude for “Put on A Happy Face,” a tuxedo-clad Dick Van Dyke bounded from stage left, performed a graceful soft-shoe shuffle and launched into his signature song along with the 100-student chorus. The audience roared.

At 78, the hometown boy was home again.

The Danville High School alumnus (1944, drama club, student council, a cappella choir, junior class president) made the song famous in the original 1960 Broadway production, which co-starred Chita Rivera and won Van Dyke a Tony Award. He reprised his role in the changed-for-the-worse 1963 movie, which acted primarily as a vehicle for the ripening Ann-Margret.

His Broadway appearance garnered the attention of iconic comedy creator Carl Reiner, who hired him for a sitcom that became TV legend — “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” It airs in syndication still.

Tribune TV critic Larry Wolters was immediately smitten when the sitcom debuted on Oct. 3, 1961: “We think the young funny man from Danville, Vermilion county, will bring the downstate city its greatest luster since (U.S. House Speaker) Uncle Joe Cannon was in his prime.”

The show, which ran from 1961 to 1966, introduced a 24-year-old Mary Tyler Moore, who played Laura, the wife of Van Dyke’s character, TV writer Rob Petrie.

The Petries live in New York, but numerous episodes reference Danville as Rob’s hometown, which brought lasting fame to the city. “I asked Carl — can I use my real hometown? He said fine. Of course everyone at home was thrilled about that,” Van Dyke said in a recent interview.

“He and Mary Tyler Moore were kind of like the Kennedys of TV. They were attractive, witty, intelligent, and both of them gifted performers,” said Danville High School English teacher Greg Williams (1978, drama, choral and band).

Besides the Tony, Van Dyke won three Emmys for acting, a Grammy and a Screen Actors Guild........

© Chicago Tribune

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