By Joel Francis
The ExaminerA 5-year-old boy stands on top of the soda counter at the corner store belting out a version of “Born Free.” The customers pause from their shopping to look up and smile appreciatively. A burst of applause greets the boy when he is finished.
The store owner gives the boy a treat and he hops down off the counter.
“I knew all the words and he’d give me candy,” Vernon Quinzy said. “Ever since then I knew I wanted to sing and act.”
This was the start of Quinzy’s show business career. Thirty-four years later he has returned to his hometown of Independence to regroup, spend time with his family and refocus.
“I’d gotten out of the acting end of things,” Quinzy said. “That, combined with my sister and her two boys.”
Since returning to the area, Quinzy appeared in “Little House on the Prairie” at the Coterie Theater and is currently starring in “Kansas City Cabaret” at the Quality Hill Playhouse, 303 W. 10th St., Kansas City.
“I think the theater work has stretched me,” Quinzy said. “It has allowed me to grow as a performer. In KC Cabaret, every song is about an artist or composer who spent time in the area, so I get to both act and sing.”
If Quinzy has enjoyed “Kansas City Cabaret,” the cast has enjoyed him more.
“He’s about the sweetest human being you’d ever want to meet,” said Cabaret co-star Teri Wilder. “I love his voice Ð he could sing to me anytime.”
Director J. Kent Barnhart agreed.
“He’s the easiest guy to work with. He’s very hard working and very kind,” Barnhart said. “It’s always interesting to see new people in this place because it is so small, but he’s taken very well to working with a smaller cast and theater.”
Ask Quinzy about his accomplishments and he’ll talk about them in a shy way where he isn’t really talking about them. But the truth is that he palled around with Prince in the ’80s, and Luther Vandross called him last week to make sure Quinzy could attend his concert.
“Do you remember the Morris Day and the Time video ‘The Oak Tree?’ ” Quinzy asked. “I’m the person cutting down the oak tree at the very first of the video. I also did videos with Vanity, Appelonia, the whole group of Prince artists.”
So how was working with the purple one?
“He’s really shy,” Quinzy said. “He’d give you directions, but never look at you directly Ð he’d look at your shoes. It seems like he saves it all, I guess for the performance, but one-on-one he’s completely different.”
After graduating from Fort Osage High School in 1980, Quinzy attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City and transferred after two years to the American Academy of the Arts in New York. He spent the better part of the 1980s modeling, singing and acting and maintaining apartments in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
“I would usually spend a few months in each place,” Quinzy said. “I would mainly do acting in L.A., in Chicago I would do print work (modeling) and some jingles and then in New York for singing. This is when I was the busiest.”
Quinzy’s acting work got him spots in Luther Vandross, Prince and other music videos and a role as a hospital intern in “Days of Our Lives.” It seemed he would break into stardom with Morgan Fairchild’s evening soap “Paper Dolls,” but the show was canned after one season.
“I really enjoyed getting the role on ‘Paper Dolls’ and how it happened,” Quinzy said. “I was brought on as someone with five lines, but the casting director at MGM was very interested in me. Had the show gone on the role would have been expanded.”
In New York Quinzy would sing commercial jingles for advertisements.
“I have a short attention span so it all worked great for me, but it brought me to a point where I decided I needed a focus,” Quinzy said.
Work at the jingle houses were slowing down and Quinzy missed his family. So he decided to go back to his roots.
“He’s very close to my boys,” said Joyce Fowler, Quinzy’s sister. “They love going to see any kind of musical or show he’s in.”
As a single mom, Fowler said she can see Quinzy’s impact.
“He’s made a difference in their lives as far as personality,” Fowler said. “He’s been a positive male role model for them.”
Quinzy may have relocated, but the work hasn’t slowed. He is still very much in demand, just won’t show it.
“He gets lots of offers to go places, but they all want him to go someplace for a year,” Fowler said. “But he doesn’t want to relocate.”
Church has played a major role in keeping Quinzy grounded, he said. He is an experienced Sunday School teacher, most recently teaching the junior class at Village Heights Community of Christ.
“It gives me a foundation and balance in my life,” Quinzy said. “I think without the church it would be easier to get caught up in the heady side of the business.”
And the children thought it was great their teacher was popular.
“When I was teaching Sunday School in Los Angeles I was doing modeling and they’d see me doing underwear ads and they’d cut them out and put it up on the church bulletin board,” Quinzy said.
Ask Barbara Wiley about Quinzy and her voice will light up. She watched him grow from a teen-age actor in church and school plays and recruited him to teach when he returned to his home congregation.
“The kids love him,” said Wiley, a member of the pastorate team at Village Heights. “He makes class interesting for them. He’s a dream of a church school teacher because he cares about the kids and he’s interested in them and they know it.”
Quinzy has enjoyed his time back home, but may be leaving soon. He has been offered a job to host a PBS series on 18th and Vine, the old Kansas City jazz district. The job will take him to Los Angeles.
“They have allowed us to do the pilot and it just kind of fell into place,” Quinzy said. “I’m sure I’m not going to be here for a lot longer.”
But for now, Quinzy is content.
“I’m working and I’m happy and I enjoy all the people I’m working with,” Quinzy said. “I’m living my dream because I’m working , but I’m sure work will take be back to New York and L.A.”