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91-year-old Savannah playwright steers her Johnny Mercer production to Broadway 


When Miriam Center turned 50 , it marked the end of an era. Not only did the divorced mother of three leave Savannah, the city where she was born, she also left behind the one-dimensional labels that had defined her for most of her life -- wife, mother, homemaker, etc. 

Center instead focused only on becoming the woman she wanted to be.

 “We are busy being the homemaker, the mother and we are frustrated,” she said. “I am a complete woman. I think it started at 50.”

Back then, Center closed her real estate business and moved to California to study spiritual psychology. Now at age 91, she has demonstrated how one can re-invent herself many times over. 

Several years ago, Center added playwright to her list of accomplishments. “Johnny Mercer & Me,” tells the story of her decades long friendship with fellow Savannah native and songwriter Johnny Mercer.

Related: Lost Johnny Mercer tunes come to life courtesy of GSU music program

Over the years, Center has staged the play at several venues in Georgia including the historic Lucas Theatre in Savannah. This month, she heads to New York for meetings with prospective producers in the hopes of bringing her work to Broadway.

A the suggestion of a friend, Center began plowing through her memories of Mercer almost a decade ago. Mercer, the co-founder of Capitol Records and a much lauded songwriter who penned a catalog of award-winning hits across four decades, lived a tortured life. Despite his great success, he feared his work would not endure.

“He would always say, ‘No one will remember my music,’” Center said of her friend who died in Los Angeles in 1976 from a brain tumor. 

Among Center’s memories are of their first meeting in California. It was 1963 and Center had wrangled her cousin, a comedy writer in LA,  into inviting her to the Academy Awards. 

It was the year Mercer and Henry Mancini won an Oscar for “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Her cousin called them over and made the introductions. Center recalls Mercer telling an off-color joke. 

Later when he would visit Savannah a friendship developed. Mercer would call Center and ask her to find a house for him to rent at the beach, she said. They shared a love of Savannah and the South and the smallness that one felt in being there.

Center, the daughter of Russian immigrants, still remembers the sights and sounds of her youth from the street vendors selling fresh vegetables and shrimp on the weekends she spent at her grandmother’s home to customers in the clothing store where her grandfather worked as a tailor. Much of Mercer’s music was influenced by similar sounds of Savannah from the regional music he heard as a child to the way people talked.

“He was very deep and very talented. He was a lyricist more than a musician,” Center said. But he was also very troubled. 

The play is set after Mercer’s death, she said. His longtime friend and confidante Maxine falls asleep looking at pictures and begins talking to Mercer in a dream. 

Both characters are complicated individuals exploring the success and setbacks of their lives. Mercer’s demons -- alcoholism, philandering and self-doubt -- are well known having been revealed in numerous biographies. But Maxine has her own struggles as she battles to become the woman she wants to be in a male-dominated world. 

Center demonstrated the same pluck as her female lead as she raised money to produce the play through various sources including a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 that raised more than $10,000.

She is fortunate, she said, to have worked with theater veterans including director Tom Coleman III who has worked with her on several productions in Georgia, but now she wants to take “Johnny Mercer & Me” to New York. 

During his career, Mercer conquered Hollywood but Broadway success proved more elusive. Several attempts at Broadway hits yielded only one show that would last, the 1956 production “Li’l Abner” which pokes fun at the South.

“He always said ‘I want to get to Broadway,’” Center said. 

Maybe now, with Center as his guide, he will make it there. 


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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.