DonDel issues casting call for a Neighborhood Kids reunion

DOVER — Don Blakey often directed his “kids” on stage “to do it big,” to stand tall and project their voices deep from their guts.

Come Sunday, he aims to do it big again with a DonDel Neighborhood Kids Reunion at the Modern Maturity Center.

There will be food and refreshments, “singing old songs, reminiscing,” Mr. Blakey said last week.

For at least three decades, Mr. Blakey and wife Delores organized countless young people in central Delaware in theatrical ventures through their DonDel Productions, an offshoot of DonDel Enterprises.

He estimated more than 2,000 youngsters participated in Neighborhood Kids over the years, presenting shows for parents and the community while smaller troupes performed at social gatherings.

For about 30 years Don Blakey, along with his wife Delores, worked with The Neighborhood Kids to produce variety shows and musical productions. The photo on the left is from the first production, “The Lil Rascals,” while the poster promotes the last one, presented in 2008. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

For about 30 years Don Blakey, along with his wife Delores, worked with The Neighborhood Kids to produce variety shows and musical productions. The photo on the left is from the first production, “The Lil Rascals,” while the poster promotes the last one, presented in 2008. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Back around 1977 or ’78 — Mr. Blakey isn’t sure of the exact year — when the Blakeys put out the call for child performers he didn’t anticipate where it all would lead or the impact the Neighborhood Kids would have on the participants.

They simply wanted to expose children to the arts, and to help them develop communication skills so they could succeed in school.

“I wanted the kids to be able to deliver information verbally in school,” Mr. Blakey said. “That was the sole purpose, to give kids a grounding (in communication), and exposure to arts.

“There was no intention to make them ready for a professional career on the stage,” he said, “but a lot of them did.”

Mike Hines of Camden, was one of the Blakeys’ “kids.” As the leader of Mike Hines and the Look, the versatile showman has gone from summertime DonDel productions to being part of a sought-after dance band known for its eclectic sound of rhythm and blues, hip hop, pop and old school funk with a dash of Motown and disco.

“After the first time I performed in one of his plays, I was hooked and knew I wanted to be an entertainer,” Mr. Hines said of Mr. Blakey in an email. “He also let me know, with hard work and dedication, I could turn my dreams into reality and that’s what I have done.

“I’m very happy and proud to say that I’m a full-time entertainer, and earn a living doing what I love.”

He’s eager to take the trip down memory lane Sunday.

“It’s going to be great to see so many past and present performers who were part of such a wonderful organization,” he said. “DonDel Enterprises gave kids the opportunity to express themselves and showcase their talents.”

The opening act

The idea for the Neighborhood Kids started when the Blakeys, who were involved with a group of adult community singers back in the 1970s, noticed the parents would bring their children to rehearsals but do little to share the theatrical experience with them.

“They were putting aside the kids,” Mr. Blakey said. “How can you do a production about a town and not have kids?”

He also fretted that youngsters didn’t have access to arts outside of school.

“Back then there were no other options except Marion Tracy’s dance studio,” he said.

And not everybody could afford dance lessons.

The Blakeys set out to create an oasis in the midst of an arts desert.

“We kind of borrowed the idea from ‘The Lil’ Rascals All Star Revue,’ ” he said, referencing “Our Gang,” a series of short films in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, that evolved into the film series “The Little Rascals” which followed the adventures of a group of neighborhood children.

The free Neighborhood Kids operated year-round with productions presented in the summer.

It drew children from all walks of life, said Kids’ alumna Yvonne Kirksey of Smyrna. “They embraced everybody.

“And no one was turned away because of a lack of talent,” she said.

Mr. Blakey was quick to give credit to Dr. F. Niel Postlethwait, then-superintendent of Caesar Rodney School District.

“Dr. Postlethwait and the principals in CR let us use the facilities for free.”

That support was crucial, he said.

At the time, Mr. Blakey was director of pupil transportation and later an assistant principal in the district. He also later served on Levy Court and in the state’s General Assembly.

Others helped also. “Eddie Cohee played music and the late Diane Drulis, a dancer in the area, became our choreographer,” he said.

“Eddie could play anything,” Mr. Blakey said.

He also praised the talent of Ms. Drulis, who died in 2008. She was a faculty member and department head at Marion Tracy Dance Studio and Central Delaware Dance Academy, among other ventures.

But “the success of the whole thing rested on the support of the CR administration,” Mr. Blakey emphasized.

Both parents and children turned out in scores and Mr. Blakey found himself working with as many as 150 children in any one production.

Lasting direction

Mr. Hines praised how Mr. Blakey directed the children while putting himself and thousands of kids on the stage.

“He had unbelievable patience,” Mr. Hines said, “and was always very encouraging to everyone.”

Mr. Blakey also made sure all the children participated in productions.

“Everybody had four opportunities to be on stage,” he said, in the opening and closing numbers, a featured number and one other.

“Our intent was not the turnout,” Mr. Blakey said, but to give kids a solid foundation.

“It was important to keep the kids grounded in something,” he said. “It kept them out of trouble.”

Along the way the Blakeys taught more than dance and acting.

“They taught the importance of posture, how to feel good about yourself,” said Ms. Kirksey. “They taught us self-esteem.”

“He had a huge impact on my life,” Mr. Hines said of Mr. Blakey. “I will forever be grateful for his support, guidance; motivation and belief in me that I needed to succeed.

“As I look back on my journey, I smile when I think about how it all started with DonDel Enterprises and the Neighborhood Kids.”

The encore

The curtain dropped on the Neighborhood Kids in 2008.

“Ran out of steam,” Mr. Blakey said, followed by a good-natured laugh.

“Also other options in the arts are now available for kids.”

The idea for a reunion came about a few months ago.

“One of the kids, Wesley Boozer, called to say he was going to be in town in October. He said ‘it’d be nice to get some of the kids together.’ ”

Mr. Boozer, a college professor, now lives in southern Florida.

As one might expect, Mr. Blakey went into action. Word has spread through word of mouth and social media about the reunion. He often runs into his one-time kids, now adults with children of their own, around town, at the Dover Mall or in Wal-Mart. He is encouraging them to attend Sunday’s event.

“Excitement is starting to bubble up,” he said.

And while Mr. Blakey doesn’t anticipate 2,000 “kids” to show up, one suspects that if they did, he would be ready to stage one more big show.

Neighborhood Kids Reunion
The Modern Maturity Center, at 1121 Forrest Ave. in Dover, is making a room available in the center’s East Wing for the DonDel Neighborhood Kids Reunion, which will run from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday. More information can be found on a Facebook group page, Don Del Enterprises … The Neighborhood Kids, or by calling Mr. Blakey at 697-6723.

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