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Charlie Vernon, a ‘droll dance warrior,’ dies at 66

Dancer, choreographer, Reader writer, and real estate salesman Charlie Vernon was all about homes: about creating them, sustaining them, and—when the time came—leaving them. A cofounder of Links Hall in 1978, he’d simply needed a space to create, he told me during a 2009 interview. Cofounders Bob Eisen and Carol Bobrow needed that space too. Though Charlie left Links in 1983, the same year he started selling homes, he remained involved. There were reunions and anniversary celebrations throughout the years, and he was on the Links Hall board when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008; he’d had to quit. After that, you’d see him sometimes at the new ground-level Links in a wheelchair or with his head bandaged up. Or without these accoutrements. Always cheerful.

Links was a place, Charlie said, “where you could get lost in a moment of creation. Intimate . . . and yet very removed. Links had a sense of seriousness, of purpose, earnest involvement, a belief that things you did and thought mattered. Movement was metaphor, and we were making statements that needed to be heard. . . . Links was a clubhouse for the marginalized artist, who was forced to admit that during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, there wasn’t much time for art.”

I didn’t see any of Charlie’s early dances. His choreographic career was short, beginning in 1977 at MoMing with Rat Parade, set to Frank Sinatra songs, and ending in 1983 or 1984 with some unnamed piece. In 2009, he recalled for me his 1980 Slumber Party: it was performed at Links against the second-floor space’s two big windows, which Charlie dressed in curtains and lamps to create a snug, homey set, the el rumbling cozily by only yards away. In 1994 I did see Charlie’s Exit Plans in rehearsal, made for a Links reunion show with Eisen and Bobrow. He’d written a text for it about home, about safety and self-protection. Charlie danced alone in a porkpie hat: a slight, waggish, comic-pathetic figure. What exit did he have in mind? His departure from Links? Whatever it was, he made leave-taking both sorrowful and light.

The art of dance can vanish so quickly, so easily. Though Charlie started writing reviews for the Reader in 1976, they’re nowhere to be found in the archives.

A couple of Charlie’s other stories are there, however, including “Leaving a Difficult Stage” in 2000, a tender, entertaining, flawlessly detailed reminiscence about the old Dance Center of Columbia College in Uptown, on Sheridan near Lawrence. Charlie interviewed many people when it closed but also recalled his own memories of the place, relishing its idiosyncrasies. A former movie house, it had no backstage, so before a show the performers would tiptoe, often holding hands in the dark, to the stage. “I was always reminded of the buddy system,” Charlie wrote. “They seemed vulnerable, standing at attention, their leotards reflecting a gauzy glow.” He called the old Dance Center “the place where epiphanies happened, bad or good news was received, kids grew up, and artists were born.”

I think every time I talked to Charlie he mentioned his wife, Marybeth Schroeder, and however long they’d been married at that point. On December 20, 2019, Charlie left her, his three children, and two granddaughters behind. They were undoubtedly the real home of this caring, stalwart, droll dance warrior.

There will be a celebration of Charlie Vernon’s life Sunday, January 12, at 2 PM at the Levy Senior Center, 30 Dodge, Evanston.  v

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