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Dreams come true: Philanthropist finds satisfaction helping projects like 'Knoxville' musical come to reality

"Knoxville" premieres Saturday and continues into next month at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When the curtain opens Saturday night in Florida on an original musical based on James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "A Death in the Family", several Knoxvillians will be in the audience, including the man who helped make it all possible.

Philanthropist Roy Cockrum provided financial support for the Asolo Repertory Theatre production through his Roy Cockrum Foundation, based in Knoxville. It's a lot of what he's been doing since fortune shined on him in 2014 and he won a multimillion-dollar Powerball jackpot after buying a ticket at Kroger.

RELATED: A death in the family, a birth onstage: New 'Knoxville' musical focuses on profound moment in Agee's life

Cockrum quietly helps theater companies across the country realize their dreams. For example, through his generosity, the University of Tennessee's Clarence Brown Theatre in 2018 staged the lavish "Candide" along with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.

Credit: Asolo Rep
The Asolo company rehearses "Knoxville" in Florida.

"Knoxville" the musical premieres Saturday night at the Asolo in Sarasota after a preview run. The show uses Agee's autobiographical novel about the death of his father in the early 20th century in Knox County and its impact on him as a boy for some of its material.

RELATED: Local lotto winner gives largest donation to Teacher Supply Depot

It's also based on the play "All the Way Home", also about the Agee story. 

"Knoxville" has been in the works for about four years.

Asolo leaders say it has been a first-class project from the beginning, in no small part thanks to Cockrum. But the Florida run is not the only objective. There are hopes it will someday end up on Broadway.

Cockrum generally shuns the spotlight. Ahead of Saturday's premiere, he answered a few questions by email from WBIR about the new musical, his philosophy, and his work.

Credit: John Black Photography
Roy Cockrum, Knoxville philanthropist

WBIR: The Asolo says your foundation came to them several years ago to inform them they'd be getting your help. Did you know then that the Agee story was a candidate for them or did the Asolo tell you that was something they were pondering? And why choose the Asolo to receive foundation help?

Cockrum: When we founded The Roy Cockrum Foundation we visited many of the flagship not-for-profit theatres around the country (League of Resident Theatres or LORT) including The Asolo Repertory Theatre. When we got there I discovered that one of my professors from Northwestern University, Dr. Frank Galati (also a Tony winner), had retired to the Sarasota area and regularly directed shows for The Asolo. We met with Frank and I asked him if he had a project that we might help him bring to fruition. He immediately said “yes, I’m working on a musical adaptation of James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.” Then he told me the working title was KNOXVILLE and we invited him to apply for a grant to develop and produce the project.

Credit: Asolo Rep
"Knoxville" director Frank Galati

WBIR: What do you think of their subject matter choice and the production?

I know Frank Galati has a profound respect for literature. Performance of literature is what I studied with him at NU and in the early 80s, he adapted a stage production with The Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” that later moved to Broadway. It was one of the most memorable productions I have ever seen. So if Frank is adapting “A Death in the Family” it will be memorable. It happens to be set in Knoxville which makes it even more interesting to us Knoxvillians.

Credit: Asolo Rep
A scene from a rehearsal of the Asolo's staging of "Knoxville".

WBIR: You seem to focus mainly on content as opposed to bricks and mortar? Is that accurate or are you interested in helping a group with building plans, for example?

Cockrum: I have made personal donations to capital campaigns and operating expenses of non-profits but the mission of The Roy Cockrum Foundation:

“…is to award grants to support world-class performing arts projects in not-for-profit professional theaters throughout the United States of America.”

We are exclusively dedicated to production support for projects not-for-profits normally couldn’t afford.

WBIR: You have a reputation for basically fulfilling theater groups' dreams. But I wonder if you have a wish list yourself -- or one big dream not yet fulfilled?

Cockrum: Helping make other people’s dreams come true is more than I could have ever hoped to accomplish. It is a dream come true for me.

Credit: Asolo Rep
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the musical team behind "Knoxville" the musical.

WBIR: Lastly, people in East Tennessee obviously would love to see "Knoxville". Is there any chance it could be staged here, are you looking at that, is that something you want to see happen?

Cockrum: Since the artistic team is so highly regarded (see “Ragtime”) there is a good deal of commercial interest in the project. If it moves, the next stop would be Broadway. I’m sure Knoxville, TN will be very high on the list to play for any tour that follows a Broadway opening.

Credit: Roy Cockrum Foundation
The Roy Cockrum Foundation, which supports the arts across the U.S.

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