Dick Van Dyke: 'I'm 17 again'

Dick Van Dyke: 'I'm 17 again'

DANVILLE — Dressed from head to toe in black and looking the part of a chimney sweep straight out of "Mary Poppins," 15-year-old Carter Mallady couldn't believe it when Dick Van Dyke looked right at him from his seat in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and sang, "Ain't it a glorious day."

"Right as a mornin' in May," Mallady sang right back to the 90-year-old icon, riding in the passenger seat of the replica movie car, slowly rolling up Jackson Street to Danville High School Thursday during a two-day return trip to his hometown.

"That was the best moment of my life, right there," Mallady said of his impromptu duet with Van Dyke. "I don't know what to say. It was so cool. Surreal."

"Truly scrumptious!" Van Dyke cried out when he saw DHS junior Lizzy Lerner, portraying the character Truly Scrumptious from 1968's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" along with senior Russell Zillman, portraying Van Dyke's character — inventor Caractacus Potts.

"I've been a fan of his since I was a little girl and saw 'Mary Poppins,'" Lerner said. "I think it's going to be incredible to be in his auditorium and actually perform with him."

Van Dyke had the perfect entrance Thursday for his return to his high school alma mater, thanks to Tony Garofalo, a retired New York City cop and Beatles performer who spent five years building an exact replica of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, then brought it to Danville this week.

With Garofalo at the wheel, Van Dyke climbed in at the south end of the high school and slowly rolled up Jackson, where Mallady and more than 80 other Danville show choir students lined the street, others dressed as characters from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Mary Poppins" and serenading him with the Chitty theme song.

Van Dyke stood up in the car and sang along with the students, who were sporting yellow T-shirts with a large caricature of the star's familiar face.

"They were so nice to my nose," Van Dyke joked later when the show choir students presented him and his wife, Arlene, with their own shirts. "They gave me a nice nose."

The jitterbugging days

The star of stage, film and television was his young-at-heart charming self during his first public appearance of this trip, cracking jokes, spontaneously breaking into songs and dance moves and reliving old memories.

"God, I'm 17 again," Van Dyke said as he walked onto the stage in Danville High's auditorium that was named for him in 2010. He recalled how, during his high school days, he'd stand behind the curtain, knees shaking, just before going on.

"It looks exactly the same. It even smells the same," he said before launching into a story of how he was a sprinter and high jumper on the track team but later joined the drama club instead and got all the good parts because he was tall and had a loud voice.

Sitting on stage in a director's chair with mural-sized pictures of some of his most memorable roles behind him, Van Dyke reminisced about growing up in Danville — how he led pep rallies in high school, did the jitterbug at school dances at Harrison Park Clubhouse, told his mom he was going fishing (actually skinny dipping) in the river and learned magic as entertainment, because there was no television and only movies on Saturday nights.

"We had such a good childhood," Van Dyke said about himself and actor brother Jerry, who was recently in a car accident with his wife and has had a long, slow recovery from injuries.

Van Dyke also described the moment he got hooked on performing. It happened after a production at DHS, when the audience applauded for an encore.

"I said, 'This is fun,'" he said. "It's one of the greatest kicks in life."

Van Dyke's special request

Van Dyke's visit kicks off the effort to restore his childhood home, located about a block from the high school on Hazel Street, and turn it into the headquarters of the Dick Van Dyke Foundation. The mission: to offer scholarships and other opportunities to young people who want to pursue the performing arts.

Todd Regan, executive director of the foundation, said Van Dyke and others are meeting during their Danville visit to get the project rolling.

Proceeds from tonight's "Welcome Home" concert at Danville High and a reception afterward at the David S. Palmer Arena will benefit the foundation.

Van Dyke said Thursday that the foundation is important to him, because in California and elsewhere performing arts activities are getting cut. He doesn't believe students have the same opportunities that he and his brother did when they were young.

It's something he said he's thought about since his last visit here, for the Danville High production of "Bye Bye Birdie."

"I couldn't get over the talent," he said of the young people in that production.

After being surprised with the unveiling in front of the high school of a yellow street sign with a silhouette of Van Dyke dancing and the words, "Keep Moving" (his motto these days), Van Dyke took a short break and then spent some time on stage Thursday afternoon with the Danville show choir students.

Inside the Dick Van Dyke Auditorium, 83 students from Danville High and North Ridge and South View middle schools rehearsed "Hushabye Mountain" and "Let's Go Fly a Kite," two of the songs they'll sing tonight. They've been practicing for the past three weeks.

"Mr. Van Dyke had one request, and that was they would sing the Danville High School fight song," said North Ridge music teacher Jennifer Woodrow, who is directing the event along with her husband, David, and high school music teacher John Neubauer.

'He loves Danville'

The students erupted in applause when Van Dyke entered the auditorium Thursday.

On stage, he interacted with the kids like he was one of them, laughing and singing and dancing and sharing stories about his own nerves as a teenager and magic tricks gone awry in mid-performance.

"Boy, this place is exactly the same," he said, looking around the auditorium.

Kathy Ward, a DHS senior who was on stage next to Van Dyke, said the 90-year-old celeb fit right in with them.

"My favorite part was when he turned around and did that little dance thing," said Jerry Strain, imitating Van Dyke swiveling his hips. "I hope I can do that when I'm 90 years old."

"I'm just honored that he wants to perform with us," said Krystal Songer, a North Ridge eighth-grader. "He could be doing anything while he's here. It just shows that he loves Danville, and he's coming back to do things to make Danville better."

Lily Boyd said she's been a Van Dyke fan since she saw "Mary Poppins" in the first grade.

"I loved it," said the starstruck North Ridge seventh-grader, who dreams of singing and acting on Broadway someday and didn't realize the guy who plays "Bert" hailed from her hometown until she was a little older. "That just showed me I can do whatever I want to do, too, even though I'm from a small town."