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BACKSTAGE: ACTOR / INVESTIGATOR : A Cop's Escape : A longtime law officer enters a new stage in life as he performs in 'The Fantasticks.'


Can a gumshoe learn the soft shoe? Can a deep-dyed lawman lighten up and make you laugh?

Braden McKinley, chief investigator for the Ventura County district attorney, submitted to questioning on the subject this week. His debut in musical comedy was central to the inquiry.

McKinley is cast in the role of Hucklebee--a slightly inept patriarchal type--in "The Fantasticks," which is playing this week at the Ventura College Theatre. He was a little surprised, he said, to have landed the part.

"I am probably the least talented of any of the crew. Maybe I have more real-life theatrics," the investigator said. "I've probably been doing it all my life--I just didn't realize it."

A quarter of a century in law enforcement may seem incompatible with song and dance--but then, McKinley isn't a typical cop.

In addition to overseeing a staff of 36 detectives, he is an ordained deacon of the Catholic church, where, among other duties, he performs marriages and teaches catechism.

He wasn't raised as a Catholic. It's something he discovered during an introspective six years with the sheriff's homicide bureau. The work, which perhaps has more often caused people to lose faith than gain it, affected him a little differently than some of his colleagues.

"There had to be more to life," he said "than what I saw on the autopsy table."

McKinley, now 47, came from coal mining country--Franklin, Pa. Just out of high school he went into the Navy, where he learned to repair Diesel engines. When his tour was up in 1965, he came to California to work in the defense industry. He had already married his high school sweetheart, Nancy, and their first son was a few months old.

But, he says, when he arrived he found the Omnibus Crime Bill had just been signed, pouring federal dollars into police budgets. All the jobs offered seemed to be behind a badge.

"I was not really sure I was suited for law enforcement," McKinley said, "I was very much an introvert."

But he made up his mind to do it, undaunted by the police recruiter who was behind a desk after losing an eye and an ear in a hatchet attack.

A few years later the lawman didn't hesitate to become the first non-military bomb technician in the Ventura-Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo area. (He trained at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, and eventually was appointed commander of the sheriff's bomb team, a post he held for 15 years.)

And the fact that he had no expertise in riding didn't stop McKinley from volunteering to develop and train the mounted sheriff's patrol, which is still used for crowd control.

"I always wanted to be a Western sheriff on horseback," McKinley said.

It's a little like his decision to break into theater with only a semester of acting under his belt.

Actually, McKinley made another stage appearance three years ago in a work titled "Saints and Sinners," put on by his church, Sacred Heart in Saticoy. He was an understudy catapulted onto center stage when the emcee became ill. He got the itch.

He ignored it until this spring. Then his 15-year-old daughter, Julie, youngest of the three McKinley children, asked him to drive her to an acting class at the college. He figured he might as well sign up for the heck of it. Director Jay Varela gave him the part.

"He has a fatherly quality that is very, very nice," the director said, "There were others who knew a lot more about singing, but they didn't look right."

Varela has been pleased with McKinley's dedication. "It's as if he were a 17-year-old," he said. "He gets here early--he drills--he does absolutely whatever you tell him to do. He's had to learn a lot."

For his part, McKinley is frankly in love with the play--a Romeo-and-Juliet story with an upbeat ending. Beyond the comedy, he said, "It's a great metaphor."

Demonstrating his depth of feeling, he recites lines from the play's hit tune, "Try To Remember": "Deep in December, it's nice to remember, without a hurt the heart is hollow. . . . "

He might even take up acting full time, he said, after his retirement. It could be used for something beyond entertainment--perhaps the police department's drug and alcohol education program, DARE.

In the meantime, "It is a great stress-reliever," he said, "It transposes you into somewhere you are not. But it's more than a temporary escape. It's got to feed the memory and feed the dream."

* WHERE AND WHEN: "The Fantasticks" continues its run at the Ventura College Theatre on Loma Vista between Day and Ashwood tonight, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. A Sunday matinee is at 3 p.m. The box office opens half an hour before show time. General admission seats are $10; $7 for seniors, students and staff; and $5 for 10 or more tickets bought in advance. Free parking is available.

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