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Retired from NFL trenches, he's poised for stage

Henry Lawrence is an ex-lineman who played in three Super Bowls. Now he will unleash his creative side in a musical.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- A former National Football League star with a love for theater will play a role in Manhattan Casino, a musical based on the renowned 22nd Street S nightclub.

Henry Lawrence, a 300-pound onetime offensive lineman who played in three Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls, will play the fictional Rat, the casino's manager.

"I haven't gotten the full impact of the whole script, but from what I know, it's going to be a dynamite production," Lawrence said.

"I'm going to need a lot of coaching, but I'm coachable, and it won't be a problem," said the lifelong Palmetto resident.

Lawrence, 51, said he appeared in a few productions during his college years at Florida A&M, where he considered majoring in speech and drama. He said he also played some dramatic roles during his 13-year NFL career with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders.

He retired in 1987.

A graduate of Manatee High School, Lawrence had a chance to showcase his football talent before hometown fans in 1984, when the Raiders defeated the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII, played in the old Tampa Stadium.

Lawrence's local connections go beyond sports. He said he once owned a club at the old Times Square shopping center on 31st Street S. And in 1997, he helped the CASA fundraising drive by donating a football signed by every member of the 1980 Oakland team.

His role in Manhattan Casino calls for both speaking and singing, said Diana Leavengood, general manager of LiveArts Peninsula Foundation, which is producing the show.

It will play at the Coliseum, opening Feb. 20 and running through March 2. For ticket information, call 565-0196.

Rehearsals start Jan. 20, Leavengood said. Actor Michele Lamar Richards, who is composing much of the music, will arrive in town a few days earlier, Leavengood said.

LiveArts has been working on the play for nearly two years. Playwright Bob Devin Jones wrote the script. Bill Leavengood, Diana Leavengood's husband, is the artistic director. He also wrote Webb's City: The Musical, an acclaimed production that enjoyed two St. Petersburg runs.

The Manhattan Casino was a St. Petersburg icon, primarily in the African-American community. From the 1930s until its closure in 1968, it drew the era's best jazz, blues and gospel musicians from around the nation. Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles and B.B. King were among its all-star list of performers.

Its musical portrayal is set in 1947, when 22nd Street was coming into its own as a post-World War II African-American main street.

City television crews and LiveArts interviewers tracked down dozens of oldtimers who recalled the heyday of both 22nd Street and its top nightclub. The documentary that resulted has won two national awards, Diana Leavengood said.

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