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The Duke of Comedy gets the last laugh

Almost a decade ago, Duke Ernsberger was given a momentary glimpse of the funniest idea of his 50-odd years on Earth.

It arrived about 3 a.m. on a sleepless night, when he stumbled upon an anecdote in a book about Ben Hecht. He learned how David Selznick, desperate producer of “Gone With the Wind,” virtually kidnapped Hecht to fix the script. He paid Hecht $15,000, locking him in a room with peanuts and bananas – which Selznick thought of as “brain food” – for a week.

Ernsberger roared. Then he went back to bed and forgot this incident, never imagining it would lead to the most successful effort of his playwriting collaboration with Virginia Cate, his mother. By the time inspiration struck for good in 2004, the fickle Muse of Drama had visited another playwright with virtually the same idea.

He and Cate could hardly believe that. Lawyers for the Dramatists Guild, which represented the author of the other play, definitely couldn’t believe it.

But the pair’s story, like Selznick’s, has a triumphant ending: Two dozen companies have done “Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell,” and it’s getting a Charlotte premiere this week from Starving Artist Productions. Ernsberger and Nathan Rouse play Hecht and Selznick, with “GWTW” director Victor Fleming (James K. Flynn) and mythical secretary Peabody (Katherine Goforth) in the crazy mix.

So how did this happen?

“Mom and I had been submitting comedies to playwriting festivals for years,” Ernsberger says. “We were tired of being a bridesmaid and never a bride, getting flattering responses that never led to productions. We said, ‘Let’s write a gut-wrenching drama. That’s what wins these things.’ We started a play about an anarchist living in a Richmond boardinghouse at the time of President Garfield’s assassination.”

It did not zoom forward. So during a honeybun break, Ernsberger lightened the atmosphere by reading the anecdote about Selznick. Cate asked, “Why are we writing a play about a boardinghouse in Richmond when we could be writing about this?” They switched at once and finished “Mitchell” three months later.

Imagine their surprise, as Ernsberger pitched the play to a friend who ran a theater in Greenville, S.C., to learn that Manhattan Theatre Club was already set to produce “Moonlight and Magnolias.”

“I, of course, got depressed,” he says. “Guilt was crushing me, though we hadn’t known about this other play. But Mom, who always looks for the positive, says, ‘No! The fact that somebody else also thought of it means it’s a good idea!’ ”

More than one producer stepped back from the Guild lawyers’ assault, but Barter Theatre stepped up in 2008. The play opened in Abingdon, Va., and the legal chatter quickly died down, once Guild attorneys realized the two works differed significantly. The authors bonded with Barter, which has also done their “Elvis Has Left the Building” and “Dracula Bites” and will do “Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Goose” this November.

The uncertain entertainer

False starts are nothing new to Arthur Duke Ernsberger. (He’s named for radio host Arthur Godfrey and the prestigious but unrelated Duke family of Durham.)

He initially wanted to be a filmmaker; he and boyhood pal Arnold Dulin shot 8 mm movies through high school. In 1972, the 21-year-old Ernsberger even dropped most of a small inheritance writing, directing and producing the horror spoof “Spook!” (The film did star Terrence Mann, a future Tony nominee for “Les Misérables” and “Beauty and the Beast.”)

Ernsberger has acted in more than 15 films, including some nationally released titles: “King Kong Lives” and two of Jim Varney’s “Ernest” movies. Indie filmmakers have often tapped into the dark side of the guy who signs emails “Ducula” and has a full-sized poster of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula on the wall of his home office.

Titles such as “Killer,” “Road Kill” and the upcoming “Killbilly Farm” dot his résumé. In the latter, he’s Uncle Ben, head of a clan of mountain throwbacks who live on moonshine and human flesh. Says he, “Four years at N.C. School of the Arts. Welcome to show business college boy.”

Yet for nearly 50 years, his relationship with acting has mirrored Michael Corleone’s with the mob in “The Godfather, Part III:” Every time Ernsberger tries to get out, somebody pulls him back in.

“A teacher at Quail Hollow Middle School, Arnold Scahn, got me into acting. I kept running away – I had no faith in myself – and he kept encouraging me. So I played a heroin addict in ‘Dope,’ even shot up onstage. At South Mecklenburg (High School), the drama teacher kept saying I should play Creon in ‘Antigone,’ so I did.

“At School of the Arts, I was a reluctant actor all four years. I’m thinking, “I hate Shakespeare,’ and my teachers are saying ‘Do this! You’re good at it!’ ” (Maybe they were right: He later played Peter Quince in N.C. Shakespeare Festival’s celebrated “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”)

He lacked not talent but confidence. “I’ve always been cripplingly shy,” he says. “My reputation is that of an outgoing guy, a real extrovert. But I’m not.”

Rouse, who heads Starving Artist, also had to overcome Ernsberger’s stage fright. The actor had narrated “The Birth,” a Christmas show Starving Artist does each year, and emailed Rouse his own play.

“We’re committed to doing works that the community hasn’t seen, and I laughed my butt off reading his script,” Rouse recalls. “We share a similar sense of humor: I’ve known Duke since we did ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ in 2006 (at Children’s Theatre) and have great affection for him.

“The closer we got to doing it, the more elusive Duke got. I was getting disheartened because I had him so much in mind. I asked, ‘When will you get to perform your own material with this cast again?’

“Finally, he agreed. Then he came into the rehearsals off book. He’s given it every ounce of commitment: ‘Anything for a laugh’ is where he’s going. His synapses are firing at a level I cannot comprehend.”

The maternal collaboration

Ernsberger and Cate wrote “Mitchell” in longhand – they didn’t have a computer then – using one coffee-table book about “Gone With the Wind” for reference.

Cate had started to write alone after her retirement from teaching in Clover, S.C. She’d asked Ernsberger to do illustrations for children’s books; they did their first play, “Losing Patients,” almost 20 years ago.

Says he, “Mom and I share our duties 50-50. She handles half the dialogue and the general concept, while I supply additional dialogue and stage directions.”

Says Cate, “It’s so unique that it’s hard to describe.” We collaborate without much structure. Sometimes we butt heads. But when we have it right, we always know.

“With ‘Margaret Mitchell,’ we did plenty of rewrites, but we never changed the order of the scenes. Because he’s an actor, he’s meticulous with stage directions. And he speaks every line aloud, so you know right away whether the dialogue works.”

Ernsberger once flirted with the idea of directing. “I don’t really have the temperament for it or for teaching,” he admits now.

“I’ve realized I was born to be an actor. When I’m in front of the camera, I can be people I could never access in real life. With or without an audience, even when I’m doing voice work, I love the process of it. So I guess all those teachers were right.”

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