Jennifer Garner still remembers when the curtain came down on the final performance of her first stage show.
“I remember crying my head off backstage. Some of the older performers were saying, ‘Yes, that’s what it’s like when a show’s over.'”
She was in the seventh grade and in the chorus of “Barnum,” performed by the Charleston Light Opera Guild in 1985.
“I was raised by the Charleston Light Opera Guild,” said the award-winning actress who will be in Charleston this week for a red-carpet benefit for the Guild.
Growing up in Charleston, the 39-year-old Garner performed in six Guild productions. She will probably talk about those shows to theatergoers at 7:30 p.m. June 18 before the performance of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in the Civic Center Little Theater.
“It’s so important to support local community theater. Miss Denton puts on quality shows. The quality of her shows is unbelievable for a town the size of Charleston. She’s a treasure, a real treasure,” Garner said.
As Guild director, Nina Denton Pasinetti cast the young Garner in her early roles and taught her ballet at the Appalachian Youth Jazz-Ballet Company.
In a phone interview, Garner also recalled her role as Louise in “Gypsy,” a summer Guild offering. “It’s such a small thing, but one of the Charleston newspapers gave me a good review. It really validated what I was doing.
“I was working at Kelley’s Men’s Shop. The people there bought me flowers and had the review. That’s another community I loved. They were so sweet and supportive.”
(In a 1990 Gazette review of “Gypsy,” reviewer Bob Schwarz wrote, “Garner sings with considerable clarity and range and sparkles.”)
At the time, Garner said she never believed she would have a career in the performing arts. Community theater was just an activity, but one she was passionate about and one that was very beneficial to her and other youth.
Working under the tutelage of Pasinetti “wasn’t all butterflies and lollipops,” Garner said. But she said she learned discipline and responsibility and was led by a person with tremendous integrity.
“She’s tough, but you want a tough person in your kids’ lives. I was lucky to have had her,” Garner said.
Pasinetti has been Garner’s guest at various theater openings and film premiers. Garner will bring mementoes from some of those events when she comes to town.
The mementoes will be offered in a silent auction held during a gala reception following Saturday’s performance.
Garner said she will have some movie posters but mostly will bring autographed DVDs of movies that she and her director/actor husband, Ben Affleck, took part in. “I may have an ‘Alias’ memento,” she said, referring to the television series that brought her Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards.
Tickets to the benefit are $120 for the performance and gala reception and $200 for the same events plus a photograph with Garner.
“We haven’t had a benefit forever,” Pasinetti said last week.
She pointed out the Guild’s workshop on Tennessee Avenue gets older every year, the Civic Center raised its rates, and productions are more expensive to put on.
About a year ago Pasinetti mentioned to Garner that on one of her trips to West Virginia, she might want to do something for the Guild.
“She’s not one to ask me for much at all. That’s all she had to say,” Garner said, who had been planning a June visit to Charleston, where her parents and sister live.
“I had a hole in my schedule and a need to get my feet back on West Virginia soil,” she said.
Garner has just finished shooting a Disney film in Atlanta titled “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.”
“It’s a beautiful story about parenthood, family, magic,” she said. “It one of the most special things I’ve gotten to be a part of.”
It’s unlikely, though, that she will return to the stage anytime soon. Although her performance as Roxane in “Cyrano de Bergerac” received good reviews, she said, “The commitment of a Broadway show would be so hard on my family.”
Pasinetti believes it’s fitting that Garner will serve as hostess at the Little Theater, where she got her start in show business.
“She remembers who helped her along the way,” said Pasinetti, who hopes to have a full house Saturday. “She is very giving.”
It’s cocktail attire for the performance and the after party, where the Bob Thompson Unit will play. “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is sponsored by Mrs. Alex Schoenbaum and Brooks Run Mining Co., a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources.
The gala reception is sponsored by Bailey & Glasser LLP, Mrs. Judith Z. Willis, Mr. and Mrs. March Slotnick and Shirley and Joe Romagnoli.