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Posted July 25, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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What about Gene? Winchester man enjoys retirement in the limelight

Gene Babb, 84, actor
Gene Babb, 84, of Winchester, has been acting in theater, television and movies for most of his life, but he has no current plans to retire from the stage. Rich Cooley/Daily

Babb played Doc in this summer's "West Side Story"
Babb, left, played Doc in this summer's "West Side Story" for the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre at Shenandoah University in Winchester. Courtesy photo

Babb talks
Babb talks about his experience playing bit roles in big movies such as "What About Bob?" and "The Pelican Brief." Rich Cooley/Daily

Gene Babb
Gene Babb Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Jessica Wiant -- jwiant@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Eighty-four year old Gene Babb was already getting asked about his age more than two decades ago, when a reporter inquired if he felt a little old to be acting.

Today, he still laughs about it -- who do you think plays old characters?

That was back in the 1980s, when Babb, after retiring from a career as a purchasing agent for National Fruit, was filling in his days -- and often nights -- on trips to play bit parts and extras in movies being filmed in places like Baltimore or Washington.

He played a clerk in "What About Bob?" during a brief scene with Richard Dreyfus, and is still getting residuals -- be they small -- from a role with a couple of lines that were cut in "The Pelican Brief" and appearances on the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street," he says.

It was also around the time that Hal Herman -- a friend of Babb's already -- founded the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, now wrapping up its 26th season.

Babb has played a role every summer.

This year, he was Doc in "West Side Story," one of his favorite roles, and his age is still no issue on stage.

He doesn't really think about it, he says. He's just part of the group.

"I do my job," he says. "I just enjoy performing."

If you count his first rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," at a theater in Winchester back when he was 4, Babb's been in and out of show business for 80 years now.

Coming from a family of eight children, he and all his siblings took to singing, he explains.

He acted and sang during his days at John Handley High School, and after serving in the Navy during World War II, returned to acting -- and the glee club -- during his education at George Washington University.

He also organized a barbershop quartet during his time in Washington, that would have been the late 1940s, where the reward for performances near campus was $5, total. It was actually a good sum in those days.

In 1955, he returned to Winchester and was active at Winchester Little Theatre for many years.

Herman met Babb in 1964 when they played brothers-in-law in a play at Wayside Theater.

"He was always a treat to work with and a treat to see on stage," Herman says.

At age 50, Babb wore a wig to play opposite a senior in high school, he jokes. Another time he dyed his hair to play the father in "Oklahoma!"

He has slowed down some these days, no longer driving to fill movie roles in big cities.

"The miles grew longer, and the hours grew later and I grew older," he says.

But acting in the summer music theater is hardly a proper retirement from acting -- rehearsals run as much as six days a week for two weeks before a round of several performances.

He is still up to the task, according to Herman, who is the artistic director of the theater.

"He's very spirited in his acting. He has a good sense of comedy," Herman says. It takes tremendous energy, he adds, and remembering all the lines is no easy task either.

"I enjoy it, it's fun," Babb says.

He doesn't think of himself as the oldest actor of the bunch. He's just the guy who tells limericks in the dressing room and who refers to classic movie stars, who he then has to explain to the rest of the younger cast.

While he especially enjoys comedic characters, he likes the challenge of playing different personalities, he says.

"I'm happy in any role," he says.

While dancing takes some extra practice, Babb says the biggest task is developing character and learning to stay in character.

He makes a cassette tape of his voices to work with, he says.

It is also perhaps inevitable that in 80 years of performing, Babb has seen some major changes take the stage -- a big one is that shows now rely less on real acting and more on special effects, he says.

"They've got away pretty much from the straight dramas," he says.

It doesn't bother him.

"Fifty years from now they'll look back on what corny stuff we were doing today," he says.

Technology has also improved. Microphones are more discrete, for one thing, he says.

While the types of plays and the language have changed, he doesn't expect theater to go away.

"I think essentially it'll stay," he says. "People like to be entertained. It stimulates, like an art museum. People still come to those and they're as old as the hills.

"There's something special about a live performance," he says.

He encourages youths to try their own hand at acting in high school or in church to see if they like it.

"It's not for everybody, and of course we have to have audiences or we'd be in trouble."

Don't expect Babb to go anywhere either. While his run on the theater is over for this summer, he has no plans not to return next year.

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