Ronnie Simonsen was not the sort of actor who was ever going to wind up on the cover of a tabloid because he polished off one too many glasses of merlot at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, and then punched out the paparazzi on his way to his tricked-out Escalade. Chances are you’ve never heard of him. But despite cerebral palsy he played Dexter Hopkins in “The Greatest Song Ever Written,” Captain Ron in “The Return of the Muskrats,” and Ron Everett in “Burning Like a Fire.”
He called himself a “working actor” and that became his mantra when he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005 and, periodically over the next five years, was told by his physicians that his prognosis was bleak: “I’m a working actor,” he would tell the doctors, “I’m gonna lick this.”
And why wouldn’t he believe that? He’d been sick for huge chunks of his childhood, beating the odds in Boston hospitals and enduring multiple surgeries to increase his mobility. He watched soap operas for hours from his hospital bed and wrote fan letters to such TV stars as Chad Everett and Leslie Charleson. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that he gravitated to these actors: Everett starred in “Medical Center” and Charleson in “General Hospital.” And these actors, in turn, became friends with Simonsen. (Everett appeared with him in “Burning Like a Fire.”)
Simonsen lost his battle with leukemia in December 2010, a little over a year ago now, passing away at the age of 55.
Later this year, however, he may have a legacy as big as his heart: The Simonsen Theatre, a part of Zeno Mountain Farm, here in Lincoln, Vermont.
Particularly diligent readers of this column – a.k.a., those with way too much time on their hands – will recall that I wrote about Zeno Mountain Farm last July. Zeno is an extended family of friends who gather together for camps a half-dozen times each year. Half of the group has such disabilities as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, cognitive delays, and autism. They range in age from teens to senior citizens. The other half are the volunteer caregivers who do not have what most people would view as physical or mental limitations. The visionaries behind the camp are University of Vermont graduates Will and Peter Halby, and their spouses, Vanessa and Ila respectively. “The mission of the camp is to promote friendships between people with and without disabilities,” Peter told me last July.
When they congregate in Lincoln in the early part of the summer, they usually number about 70 people.
The group also gathers for camps in Guatemala, Florida, and California. No one pays or is paid to take part. The program is funded through the short films Zeno produces annually and then screens at fundraising premieres in a few major markets, as well as via smaller donations from supporters across the country. It is those movies that starred Ronnie Simonsen – a Zeno camper since the program’s inception.
But the camps transcend the movies. There are sports camps, art camps, and music camps. As big-hearted and clever as the movies might be, they are merely the means to feed the meter. When Zeno is in residence here in Lincoln in the summer, they produce a musical; but they also swim and hike and paint and celebrate the Fourth of July with epic floats for the Bristol parade.
Which brings me back to the Halby family’s goal of constructing a theatre for their program in Lincoln. In classic movie musical fashion – think Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney – the pair have bought a 19th-century railroad barn in Waterbury that nobody particularly wanted but also nobody wanted destroyed. It’s a relic from another era made from hand hewn spruce timbers, some 40 feet long. Waterbury residents will recall it was the old Station Lumber and Hardware. But it has been sitting empty for two years, and its owner, Pilgrim Partnership, agreed to donate it to Zeno Mountain Farm. Organic farmer and carpenter, Dave Quickel, is among the team currently disassembling it. “Everybody wins,” he said, because the barn will be preserved and put to a good use.
This spring Zeno plans to move it over the mountain to Lincoln, rebuild it on Zeno property, and transform it into the 3,200-square foot Simonsen Theatre.
“It will give us a place to hold our plays, but also our dances, classes, and fundraisers. It will be a place for us to go in the summer when it rains,” Peter said.
The total project, including the renovation, will cost about $350 thousand. So far, they have raised $150 thousand.
“Theatre is a great equalizer,” Will said. “Someone with a disability can bring so much to art. Ronnie was a fantastic actor because of his disability. He was so committed to every moment and every role.”
He also had a savant-like knowledge of those TV soaps he loved. “In Los Angeles,” Will recalled, “Ron once recognized someone who played a teenage junky in an episode of ‘Medical Center’ back in the 1970s. The actor was in his forties by then.”
And so while Ronnie will never have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the working actor may soon have something he would have wanted far more: A theatre his Zeno friends can use here in Lincoln.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 15, 2012. The movie based on Chris’s 2010 novel, “Secrets of Eden,” premieres on February 4 on Lifetime Television. It stars John Stamos and Anna Gunn.”)
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To learn more about Zeno Mountain Farm visit www.zenomountainfarm.org .