Bill Dunnagan spent 13 years of his life revealing the human condition on Hilton Head Island, and it wasn't always a pretty picture.
He was an irascible curmudgeon, but a much-loved director of the Hilton Head Community Playhouse from its beginnings in 1976 until he gave the role to one of his twin girls, Dallas Dunnagan.
Bill Dunnagan died Monday morning in Jacksonville, Fla., at 89, just two weeks after a group from the old playhouse days held a reunion on the island.
Dunnagan answered a 2-inch ad in Variety to head a theater here. But there was no theater. He worked alone to convert a construction company warehouse into a theater on a side street later named Dunnagan's Alley.
He said he tried to quit once a month.
"You don't have a theater," he would plead to his board. "You have a drama club ... Choose up sides two or three times a year and put on a play."
What's more, "That's not a community theater," he said when he stepped down, "because there's no community for it to be a theater for. There's no community here, just a lot of little factions and enclaves."
In his exit interview with the Packet features editor, he ripped the neighborhoods for having guard gates, the chamber of commerce and the newspaper for not promoting the arts, Realtors for taking more from the community than they gave, and the "non-citizen residents" who he said exist only for that they want to do.
"The same 900 people who support the playhouse are the ones who contribute to everything else on the island," he said.
But just as quickly as he'd make people squirm, Dunnagan could make them laugh. And he was singled out by the Community Association for selfless work to improve life here.
With his round face, bald head and glasses, Dunnagan looked more like the Maytag repair man than a pained artist.
When Dunnagan was born, his father was trying to eke out a living in the dying days of Vaudeville. As a young man, he served his country and then tried everything from plumbing to being a private eye before giving in and realizing his life's work would revolve around the stage, lights and applause.
He arrived as someone who had worked for years with Mickey Rooney, ran dinner theaters and acted. His stories were riveting, and endless.
"I was in a Disney movie called 'The Wahoo Bobcat,' " he told the late Lowcountry journalist Jim Littlejohn. "But I was the villain, not the star. The star was the bobcat."
He arrived on the island with his wife, Peggy, who created all the playbills and posters. All three children -- Dallas, Sloan and Tyler -- ended up on stage, as did their mom, who died in 2012.
Dunnagan created something from nothing, taking a tiny gaggle of wannabes on a dead-end street at the end of the world and turning it into something. He vigorously supported the next step for local theater, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, which opened in 1996.
John Jakes got involved in the community theater while churning out best-sellers on Hilton Head. Retiree Garry Moore of TV fame did a couple of special shows so the theater could pay its bills.
Dunnagan -- who sometimes joked that he could judge a show by how many martinis it took him to suffer through it -- orchestrated the ebbs and flows of humanity over wobbly boards.
"Thank you Bill, for all those late nights of rehearsals when I know you'd rather have been home with your family," Jane Stouffer wrote on Facebook. "For your patience and candor, for your humor and tough love. You gave us a family at the Community Playhouse and for that, you will always have a special place in my heart."
Dunnagan called Broadway "Disney World North," a fake experience made for spectacle.
"What you see at the community playhouse is often more enjoyable," he told island journalist Lynn Felder. "There is substance in theater. It is as much of a spiritual filling station as any church. You ought to be able to go into the theater and for a brief moment look at truth.
"A theater is a special space -- even that old construction warehouse."
- Seafoam: 'Old gang' from former Hilton Head Playhouse gather for reunion, May 22, 2015
- Island's Community Playhouse takes a final bow, Aug. 24, 2010