How this performer extraordinaire is saving the arts, one city at a time
By Brenda Zofrea
To the world, Ben Vereen is a famous, multi-talented entertainer who has acted, sung, and danced on the small screen, big screen, and stage, but to his seven grandchildren, he’s just “Grandpa.” No fuss and no pretention, but a grandpa with a youthful sense of humor. “First of all, I’m not old enough to be a grandfather, but when the first one came along, I got ‘grooved’ into it. Wow, this is groovy. I can spoil them, fill them with sugar, and send them back saying ‘Now you know what I went through!’” Currently, home for Ben Vereen is “Los Angeles with a suitcase” and although his children and grandchildren are spread across the country, he’s quick to mention that his fourth grandchild just received honors for his grades.
Hanging with the Grandkids
With his busy travel schedule and dispersed family, it’s difficult to have regular visits with Oliver (22), Caleb (21), Serena (16), Miguel (12), Ajan (13) Noah (11), and Moses (5), but there is one thing his grandchildren can count on: “When they do something good in school, grandpa has to do something good for them.” What is his idea of a reward? It’s spending time together, taking a trip, or hanging out with him on the road. “It’s easy to buy something, but it’s more important to spend time together.” His advice for other grandparents is to “love it, enjoy it, and take the time,” and that’s the same advice he gives to his godson, Usher, a celebrity parent with young children, along with suggestions to “have patience, LISTEN, and take the time; they [children and grandchildren] are our legacy.”
“It’s a movement towards love. It’s about enforcing the spirit of love on the planet and changing the whole paradigm of the hatred that’s going on.”
A SPIRITUAL ENFORCER too
After spending some time with Ben Vereen the performer extraordinaire, loving grandpa, and arts education advocate, I couldn’t leave without inquiring about his black baseball cap, emblazoned with a message he clearly wants to promote: SPIRITUAL ENFORCER.
“It’s a movement towards love. It’s about enforcing the spirit of love on the planet and changing the whole paradigm of the hatred that’s going on,” Vereen explained, “It’s about asking people for a commitment to help make the world a better place. The SPIRITUAL ENFORCER caps will be available via a website, currently under development, with all proceeds going towards the arts and children with disabilities, such as diabetes and obesity.
He not only survives, he thrives
Along with his success and celebrity, Ben has had his share of life’s ups and downs. In 1992 he was severely hurt in an auto accident and suffered a stroke. He spent eight months intensively relearning how to walk and talk and had to fight his way back to being Ben. His friends will tell you “No matter what happens he doesn’t lose his cool. Even when the chips are low, he doesn’t get down.” This life-changing event, that could have ended his show biz career, seems to have catapulted him to a greater awareness, an appreciation for life and all that life has to offer. A deeply spiritual man, Ben offered the gift of his flute playing at the end of our interview, offered not so much to entertain, but to offer a closing gift of calmness and serenity.
One thing is for certain: Ben Vereen has played many roles over his lengthy and impressive career, including that of a legendary actor, versatile and award-winning song and dance man, and proud father and grandfather. However, we suspect this very busy entertainer is just getting started and won’t stop until his goal of providing every child with the opportunity to experience the arts in their education is achieved. BRAVO, Ben!
Ben recently performed his concert act, “Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen,” at New York City’s 54 Below, which showcased the singing, dancing, and charisma that made him a star. His commanding performances garnered rave reviews: “He’s still got it!” (David Clarke, BroadwayWorld.com, and [Ben Vereen is a] “song and dance man who never lets up. He wins you over with his sheer energy, good will and showbiz know-how.” (Stephen Holden for The New York Times)
With an already-impressive, diverse, and jam-packed resume that includes a Tony and Drama Desk Award Winning performance in Pippin, Ben also appeared on Broadway in Wicked, I’m Not Rappaport, Chicago, Hair, Fosse, Jelly’s Last Jam, Jesus Christ Superstar and A Christmas Carol. He’s also frequently appeared on TV, perhaps most notably as Chicken George in the TV miniseries Roots, and starred in films, including Idlewild, All That Jazz, Sweet Charity, and Funny Lady (for which he won a Golden Globe nomination), to name a few, Ben is also co-starring in a new film, Time Out of Mind, with Richard Gere (opening nationwide this September). This movie is important to Ben because he knows what it’s like growing up without a dime, in the poverty-stricken Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He related to this movie because, as a child he saw poverty all around him—he even thought he needed a passport to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan!
On the horizon, Ben is also busy developing his one-man show for Broadway, a musical inspired and based on his life, with an expected 2016 Broadway debut.
The Ben Vereen Awards Program
As Ben passionately discusses his grandchildren, you can’t help notice that other passions are also at the forefront of his life, mainly his love of the arts and his desire to promote and get the arts back into education. “The arts are about diversity. I looked at the playing field—the government has cut away at arts programs—so how can I put arts back in the schools?” The Ben Vereen Awards Program is an opportunity for talented high school musical theater students to compete for the top prize of a $10,000 college scholarship. The program also uses the performing arts as foundation for a healthier lifestyle, focusing on the key tops of obesity, diabetes, low self-esteem, and bullying. Launched in San Diego, Vereen hopes to expand the program nationwide.
Author, educator and child safety advocate, Brenda Zofrea is the Child Safety Editor and contributing writer for GRAND Magazine, and creator of the LET’S B SAFE™ Program: “A Unique Approach to Protect Children and Promote Literacy” and Guardian ad Litem. To learn more, visit www.letsbsafe.com