Settle in at Toby’s Dinner Theatre and you can count on these staples: the spinach phunque, the sundae bar and a performance by an ageless character actor named Robert Biedermann.
A mainstay for more than three decades at the Columbia playhouse, Biedermann, 69, has done 56 shows, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “West Side Story.” He is also the emcee whose banter and wit warms up the audience between meal and musical. And every night, as folks file out of the theater-in-the-round, Biedermann lingers to size up the house.
“I want to see who leaves here feeling better than when they arrived,” he said.
He has had juicy roles and bit parts, playing both with aplomb. He was Captain Andy in “Showboat” and Captain Brackett in “South Pacific”; the loveable Kris Kringle in “Miracle On 34th Street” and the curmudgeonly Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Of the latter two, Biedermann favors the fleshier Potter role.
“I don’t get to be mean that much in my own life,” he said. “When you roll out for your curtain call, if you don’t get booed then you haven’t done your job.”
Acting came later in life for Biedermann, a Navy brat who was born in Virginia and attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in theoretical math. A Vietnam veteran, he served aboard an aircraft carrier, then worked as a flight attendant for three years before turning to acting. He was 29 and living on a houseboat in the Potomac when an audition notice caught his eye: Burn Brae Dinner Theater in Burtonsville needed chorus boys for a production of “Mame.”
Biedermann’s entrance at that tryout was underwhelming, at best.
“I had no resume, no pictures and no music, so I sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” he recalled. “Then I danced — I’d taken ballroom lessons. That I lived on a houseboat piqued their interest, and they hired me for a three-month run.”
Biedermann blossomed onstage, said John Kinnamon, then Burn Brae’s owner, producer and director.
“Robert was a fledgling actor who fit right in and took off from there,” Kinnamon said. “He’s a good, solid character actor, a first-class talent and person who could do this anywhere, from soaps to films to Broadway. But when he sheds his makeup, he prefers to go home, so dinner theater became his ilk.”
Other gigs followed “Mame” until, in 1989, Biedermann opened at Toby’s as the Major General in “Pirates of Penzance.” Midway through its run, he left the show. His brother, who had leukemia, needed a bone marrow transplant. His sibling was a perfect match. Though surgery was successful, Kurt Biedermann died soon after.
The actor returned to Toby’s and earned the title role in “The Wizard Of Oz,” still Biedermann’s favorite.
“It’s magical.” he said of the part, which he later parlayed into three national tours of the Frank Baum classic that played 193 cities in the U.S. and Canada between 2008 and 2011. Even now, without prodding, Biedermann will lapse into character and deliver his favorite lines to the Tin Man:
“As for you my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don’t know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable. And remember, my sentimental friend, that a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”
Those words were almost the last that Biedermann ever spoke. On March 31, 2002, after an Easter Sunday performance of the musical at Toby’s, Biedermann was shot in the temple during a robbery attempt as he arrived at his home in Silver Spring.
“I can still hear the sound of that .22 hitting my head,” he said. Bleeding profusely, he reached for something to stop the flow. It was the shirt he’d just worn as the wizard.
Help arrived quickly. As he lay on a stretcher, awaiting transport to University of Maryland Shock Trauma, Biedermann beckoned a neighbor.
“Wendy, I need a favor,” he said. “Call Toby [Orenstein, theater owner] and tell her I’ll be there Thursday for the show.”
Then it hit him. This is who I am; this is what I was meant to do.
”I didn’t ask her to call my mother or sisters. I was only ticked off about missing performances,” he said.
The bullet remains lodged in his skull; removing it would cause further damage, surgeons said.
“I know [the slug] is there if it’s cold outside, or if I eat too big a sandwich,” Biedermann said.
His assailant was caught and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Ten years later, he died of brain cancer.
“Karma’s a b----,” the actor said.
The shooting didn’t sideline Biedermann for long.
“He was shook up, but back in about a week,” Orenstein said. “Robert has wonderful old-school values and a very strong sense of commitment to his work.”
Biedermann is, both personally and professionally, “a fighter, a survivor — and a genuine soul,” said Mark Minnick, Toby’s director and associate producer. “Robert’s portrayals ring true, whether it’s Potter or Kris Kringle or Captain Brackett; it’s honest for the intimate setting up front, yet heightened enough to reach the back row.”
Colleagues say Biedermann is known as much for his altruism as for his acting.
“He’s a kind, warm and generous person who always shares the stage — and you don’t find many genuine people in the theater,” said Tina DeSimone, 50, of Annapolis. A Toby’s regular (she played the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard Of Oz”) DeSimone has worked with Biedermann for 30 years and said “I hope to do it for 30 more.”
Given his druthers, Biedermann said he would prefer to expire in character.
“I’m hoping to find a scene in a show where I die on stage — and actually do,” he said wryly. “I want people to say, ‘Wow, what a performance!’ ”
But not just yet.
“I still want to play the role of Colonel Pickering in ‘My Fair Lady.’ He’s the heart of that show,” he said.
Until then, Biedermann will play Toby’s, where the actors take turns waiting tables and kibitzing with patrons before the show starts. That’s fine with him.
“I do a better job, on stage, when I wait tables — when I know there are certain people out there, with whom I connect,” he said.
Age aside, Biedermann insists he’ll keep serving drinks to audiences and delivering his lines:
“I thank God every day, with a bullet in my head, that I’ve got another show to do.”