The Journey: Beaufort's Jon Sharp and Suzanne Larson
By Mary Ellen Thompson | Jon Sharp came to Beaufort by way of boat, and not intentionally. “I left Hollywood on the first of October, 1991, having turned 50 and realizing that a lot more of my life now lay behind me than loomed ahead, it occurred that it was time to get on with any adventures I had on hold. So I sold the house, sold the art, sold the 1977 Special Bandit Edition Trans Am, and headed out across America in an old pickup along the blue highways.
“I arrived in Beaufort, North Carolina on Halloween and a week later bought a 35 foot wooden sailboat. I re-named her ‘Wolfheart’ after my spirit animal. In February 1992, I set sail out alone into the North Atlantic Ocean, never having sailed before in my life, and right into a mild Nor’easter with 34 – 40 knot winds. It was the third ocean wave where I discovered I was deathly prone to seasickness – who knew? The plan was to sail down the coast to Florida, across the straits to the Bahamas, across the Caribbean to the Canal and into the Pacific. Then onward to the ‘Ring of Fire, Indonesia, and somewhere out there, the meaning of life.
“February 18, 1992 – alone in ‘Wolfheart’ in the North Atlantic, suffering from the seasickness, hypothermia, and dehydration. Suddenly to starboard – a water tower! There wasn’t supposed to be a water tower at sea on the way to the Bahamas; got on the radio to check my bearings. Gene Ulmer, the harbormaster at Port Royal Landing Marina answered the call. He had me check my Loran and verified my location as being off Port Royal Sound; gave me a heading of 270 degrees to get inside the Sound. The Coast Guard monitors radio transmissions out of Tybee Island, GA, they came over the radio and said I sounded in distress. They told me to drop my anchor and sails, that they would come to get me. I told them I was fine, I would make it in on my own.
An argument ensued until I broke off transmission and went ahead until a large wave came up astern, spun ‘Wolfheart’ around, and snapped my rudder. Then, a call back to the Coast Guard humbly asking for assistance. A little red rescue helicopter came over the horizon, took me off the boat and soon dropped me down in the parking lot of a hospital. I read the sign ‘Beaufort Memorial Hospital’ and moaned that I was back where I had started in Beaufort, North Carolina. The rescue swimmer replied, ‘No man, you in Byewfert now.’”
He spent the night in the hospital, and his boat was towed to the Port Royal Landing Marina. In time Jon came to understand that no matter what his intention, he was not going to be able to outsmart fate on this leg of the journey. Apparently something or someone was here waiting for him.
“I had set off on an adventure, thinking the answers were ‘out there’ somewhere. As it turned out, I got the answer right here in Beaufort. Despite several years of resistance, it finally came to me: ‘You are exactly where you are supposed to be.’
“Here I was, shipwrecked in Beaufort, living on my boat anchored up in Factory Creek and I had to do something to earn money to get on with my adventure. All I knew was acting and directing, so I started teaching an acting class at USCB. Word got out that a Hollywood type was here; after four months on a sailboat, I had long hair down my back and I must have looked pretty wild and exotic. Suzanne called asking to do a feature story on me for WJWJ-TV 6:00 news. She interviewed me and then she took my acting class and we became acting partners.”
Tall, lanky and distinguished looking with his mane of leonine hair, Jon is the perfect compliment to Suzanne’s feminine and graceful elegance. “We performed Love Letters at Blackstones Cafe, which at that time was on Bay Street. Then we took Love Letters on the road and toured the provinces,” Jon laughs, “which were Varnville, Hampton and Aiken.”
Jon speaks of Suzanne with a certain awe, “It didn’t take me long to realize that I had finally met the love of my life.”
HOLLYWOOD – ON BOTH SIDES OF THE CAMERA
Jon moved to Hollywood from San Francisco to be the TV News Director for KABC on the 6:00 news. When he heard they were looking for an Associate Director for the popular TV show All in the Family starring Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, Jon says, “I interviewed with the Director, Paul Bogart and they hired me. Imagine, you’ve grown up watching Archie and Edith – now you get to work with them! We were in the production hall on my first day and Jean Stapleton came over and greeted me – ‘Come sit by me and tell me all about yourself!’ she said. She has such a deep mellifluous voice, and then suddenly she was, yelling ‘Archie, Archie!’ with that high tinny inflection. I just loved her!”
Jon was the Associate Director of that show for 24 episodes from 1978-9. As the Associate Director, in 1979 his name is on the Director’s Guild of America Award for All in the Family as best situation comedy. From 1979 – 82, Jon directed three television series starting with Archie Bunker’s Place, in 1981 he directed I’m a Big Girl Now, and in 1982, Too Close for Comfort.
During this time, Jon took acting classes because he thought it would help him be a better director. He recalls, “I found acting to be almost unbearably difficult. I heard a wonderful actress once describe it as ‘Standing naked in the light and turning around – very slowly.’ It was so hard; but for me, if it’s difficult – for whatever reason, I just have to do it!”
Consequently, in 1982 Jon started acting and was in several TV series: Dynasty, General Hospital, Hunter, and They Came from Outer Space. He was in four films, most notably the cult classic Valet Girls in which he plays a lecherous movie producer. He remembers the premiere of Valet Girls, “It was held in the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, the screen was 40 feet tall and I was listed third in the credits. When the movie started and I saw myself on screen, I slunk out of there because I thought I stunk up the theatre! It was instant humility; it’s such hard work and you need all the courage you can muster to do it anywhere near well.
“In 1987, I crashed and burned; there is just so much excess in Hollywood. But it was also the greatest experience working with magnificent actors and directors – Paul Bogart, Sherry North, Jerry Stiller and Annie Meara, Mariette Hartley and many others. It was a real good time and I made the most of it and I got out alive. In the 80’s a lot of ‘em didn’t.”
“I believe everyone is creative and has a longing to express it somehow. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to do that. Suzanne and I started a theatre in Port Royal at the Union Church. It was very exciting and rewarding producing and directing plays and helping the brave people in the Low Country express their creativity, but eventually it became a drain both financially and emotionally.”
One day Jon was downtown, noticed the horse carriages, and talked to Peter White, who owns Southurn Rose Buggy Tours. “We hit it off and I went to work for him. I had Butch, the great Belgian draft horse, and a carriage and gave forty-five minute tours. I’m a history geek -history is what kept me in school. It was like a great adventure novel unfolding day after day. After a year on the carriage it came to me that if I walked the same route it would take twice as long and I could tell twice as much history.”
So Jon started his own two mile, two hour Walking History Tour (jonswalkinghistory.com) through the National Historic District of Beaufort. Impassioned by his love and knowledge of history, Jon points out that South Carolina had more revolutionary battles, lost more men, and sent more money off to the revolutionary cause than any other colony.
Knowing he is fortunate do be doing something he loves, Jon gives thanks to Peter and Rose for giving him his start in his touring career in Beaufort. “I also want to thank Walter Gay, Evelene Stevenson, and Captain Dick. They are all wonderful tour guides who have been kind and more than generous sharing their knowledge of Beaufort’s history. I owe them a lot and I thank them for their friendship.”
At the end of the day, Jon is not content to rest upon his many laurels; he is, after all, a man driven by a sense of purpose and never ending creativity. His tools are his creativity, his intellect, and his acumen, with perhaps a script or two thrown in for good measure.
On a smallish piece of property, Jon has fashioned intimate pathways and unexpected seating areas next to waterfalls and goldfish filled ponds. The kitchen has cabinets beautifully crafted of Indonesian teak that suggest the interior of a well appointed yacht. The window faces out into a walled garden which creates the atmosphere of being ensconced in the midst of a vast space rather than a suburban neighborhood. It is a magical place, where Jon and Suzanne can live happily ever after.
Suzanne Larson found her way to Beaufort pretty much on a whim. She accepted a job at SCETV, packed her bags and headed East from California. She didn’t know anyone here when she arrived, but aside from the heat and bugs to which she was unaccustomed, she was immediately charmed not only by the town, but the people. “I grew up in the military and lived in many places; this is the first town I’ve ever been where people don’t treat you like a stranger. Also, unlike many other areas, this community is so loyal to the military. I’ve lived in communities that have signs on the lawns that say “Dogs and Military: Keep Off the Grass.”
Tall and willowy with masses of great curly hair, Suzanne soon became a familiar face around town. As her affection for Beaufort grew, so did the town’s infatuation with her. As any good romance story will read, this is where she met the love of her life, Jon Sharp. Seeing them together will make you take a deep breath and sigh because they embody all our dreams of the happy ending.
“Jon and I met for the first time in 1993 at USCB’s Performing Arts Center. He was teaching drama there and I wanted to do a story on the ‘shipwrecked Hollywood director’ for statewide airing on SCETV. He was a fascinating interview and I was very drawn to him. He paid no attention to me thereafter so I did ANOTHER story… a longer one and more in-depth! I attended one of his acting classes to get to know him better and he ended up casting me in a play. It was a two person play — just him and me. My character fell in love with his character and ended up committing suicide after drowning her sorrows in alcohol. I did not commit suicide, instead I made myself indispensable to him until he caved in and married me! Men who live on boats normally don’t have cars or good kitchens. Therefore, convenient transportation and a hot meal seem to go a long way towards making a girl essential!
“The first time I set eyes on him was a few months earlier at a pig roast fundraiser on Lady’s Island. I knew right away that he was not from Beaufort as he had a long pony tail and I had not seen a man with a pony tail since I left California seven years earlier. He was dancing with great exuberance and seemed like freedom personified. It was dark out but in my mind’s eye I remember him dancing in bright sunlight. I think it was because he looked so happy and joyful. Everyone said, “Who is that man?” Later, we read about him in the newspaper, but did not realize the wild man we had seen dancing with such abandonment was the California director featured in the article. It is possible he was so joyful because he had survived his ordeal at sea and was grateful to be alive and on the ground.
“He was introduced later at a board meeting of Beaufort Little Theatre. I was on the board at the time and put it together. I called him a few days later to ask for an on-camera interview.”
“In 1976 I moved to Southern California because I wanted to finish college. I started my college career in Gulfport, MS at a girl’s college where their concern was instilling good manners and Southern traditions in young women. I lasted a year there; I saw myself as a coffee shop poet so etiquette was not my primary concern. After that first year, I had no ambition, I didn’t know what to do with myself, consequently I got married, got divorced, and found myself a single mom in Virginia Beach. I was in a resort town where I had no marketable skills, so I went back to college at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. It was 20 miles away and I didn’t have a car, so I got a job driving a school bus so I could get to classes. In addition to having transportation, they paid me $125 a month and gave me a free turkey at Christmas!”
But there were no grants or other programs and even though Suzanne also had a job at a health food store, it was tough making ends meet. She recounts, “I bought a Chevy Vega, packed up my son and the dog, and went to California where they had a free college system and Pell grants for expenses. I got my degree in News Editorial Journalism, with a minor in Genocide, from Humbolt State University in Northern California”.
Although her degree was in print, in 1982 she ended up in television newscasting at KVIQ in Eureka, CA. “Writing for television was very different than print writing; first of all, television was very competitive. We did our own news gathering and there is quite an art to news gathering. I was making $700 a month, raising a child and I had to have a wardrobe and makeup in addition to other expenses. I was scratching out a living there, I was still just a girl trying to make a living in a world I didn’t vibrate well in – I was still a coffee shop poet at heart.”
BEAUFORT – ON AND OFF CAMERA
“Then, one day I found out through PBS that there was an opening in Beaufort for someone to develop a news cast here. I sent my resume, got the job, and only later found out that I was the only one who applied! So I came in the Spring of 1986, sight unseen, and went to work for SCETV. I was a one person band in pumps and pantyhose. I carried camera equipment and a twenty pound deck while gathering news. We did 30 minutes of news with no commercials with only four reporters. When the news was gathered, I had to get dressed up, fix my makeup and hair, get on camera and look good. Although I started out as the new girl in town, after 18 years on ETV, I became Executive Producer of the news.”
One of Suzanne’s original goals was work for public television and make documentaries, which she finally got the opportunity to realize. One is a thirty minute history of the Hunting Island lighthouse, A Light on Treacherous Waters. The piece earned a national award, the Cine Golden Eagle, in 1993. She later wrote and directed a play called Keeper of the Light, which is also set on Hunting Island. It is a fictional account of a fictional light keeper at Hunting Island. “When I started doing theatre, Friends of Hunting Island asked me to turn the documentary into a play which was produced at USCB in 2009. It was a wonderful production with a great cast: children, dogs, chickens, a goat, a duck, and a big plastic alligator!” Another documentary was about hurricane preparedness which was effective in raising awareness about hurricanes and how to prepare for them.
Suzanne retired in April of 2012 as the Public Information Officer for Beaufort County. These days she works part-time as a reporter for a government news service in addition to her myriad of other talents and activities.
She spearheads many fund raising events: last year she promoted the Lieutenant Dan Band’s visit to Beaufort, she works with Aunt Pearlie Sue, and she’s a familiar face at the Beaufort Film Society. “Way back in the beginning I was on the film commission with Ron Tucker but I had to beg off because of work. He asked me to be a judge and gave me a pile of DVD’s, so I helped judge the submissions; it’s such a fun and worthwhile organization.”
When Suzanne retired she had more time, then Ron came up with the idea to have Suzanne dress people in vintage clothing as actors and have them cavort around the Film Festival events. “The first year I was Mommy Dearest.” Suzanne laughs at the memory, “Who was she, Joan Crawford? I put on dark eyebrows and ran around with a coat hanger threatening people. It was great fun! I don’t think I looked a thing like her, but people were drinking.” This year I’m looking forward to dressing as Shirley MacLaine in ‘Downton Abbey,’ I love that show!”
Suzanne has two children, daughter Shawn Sproatt who also lives in Beaufort, is an actress and has had five fantasy fiction books digitally published. Son, Larry Hansen has three children and lives in Appleton, WI; Suzanne says, “He’s a wonderful family man and a dear soul, I miss him so much.” When not working, volunteering, or involved in her other activities, Suzanne likes to watch movies and read, “I have to have a book, I favor historical fiction because I like to be transported to that time and place.” Rolling her eyes and laughing, she says with her unfailing good humor, “And, I play a really horrible violin; I like to play with women because I find male musicians a little intimidating.”
Having honed her craft at the hands of husband Jon, Suzanne is still acting.
August and expressive, Suzanne has a sparkle in her eyes that thinly veils her inherent sense of mischief. Perhaps hearkening back to the days when she and Jon performed Love Letters in Port Royal, she has been known on special occasions, and for favorite fundraisers, to compose custom love poems or letters to be delivered to the senders object of affection.
Suzanne still is a romantic coffee shop poet at heart.
Story by Mary Ellen Thompson, photos by Susan DeLoach.
Published bi-monthly, Beaufort Lifestyle is a classy, sophisticated publication about the wonderful people, places and events of Beaufort, Port Royal and the Sea Islands. Grab your free copy at any one of 200 area locations or check it out online at http://www.beaufortlifestyle.com.