Michael Jesse Bennett, an actor who entertained audiences in Utah and around the country for more than five decades with his one-man Charles Dickens play, has died at the age of 90.
Bennett died Dec. 31, 2019 — a day after his 51st wedding anniversary — according to an obituary posted by Larkin Mortuary.
Bennett researched and wrote “An Evening With Charles Dickens” and portrayed the author for some 56 years. He created a repertoire of one-man shows, including “A Man of the Mountains,” about 19th century mountain men, as well as shows about Patrick Henry and Christopher Columbus. All told, he gave more than 1,400 performances for more than 230,000 spectators.
Bennett was a founding member of the Babcock Readers Theater, now Babcock Performing Readers, a nonprofit program where people read and perform works of literature. For several years, Bennett taught Babcock members a six-week workshop on how to read Shakespeare.
“Some of the performances were remarkable,” Bennett told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2003. “The dedication and interest is what makes the group successful.”
Bennett provided narration to a 2014 Utah Opera performance of “Oedipus Lex,” a modern-day short opera based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. He also narrated performances for Utah Choral Artists, often as Dickens or the author’s creation, Ebenezer Scrooge. For many seasons, he provided the voice of Lehi at the Hill Cumorah Pageant, a long-running summer production staged in upstate New York by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (The church is discontinuing the production after this July’s performances.)
The Internet Movie Database lists 26 movies and TV shows in which Bennett had roles. They were mostly small parts in productions shot in Utah, in such shows as the 1980 UFO classic “Hangar 18,” the 1994 Stephen King miniseries “The Stand,” and three uncredited appearances on TV’s “Touched by an Angel.” His final film role was as a rebbe in the 2009 film “The Yankles,” about a yeshiva baseball team.
Bennett was born April 29, 1929, in Salt Lake City, the third of eight children. He grew up in the Gilmer Park neighborhood — where he returned for the last half of his life. He graduated from East High School in 1946 and enrolled at the University of Utah. His college studies were interrupted by a religious mission to England, and when he was drafted into the Army in 1953. He received two Bronze Stars during the last eight months of the Korean War.
In between his mission and his Army service, he married Florence Marie Gates. The couple had seven children. They were later divorced.
Before his acting career, Bennett followed his father’s and grandfather’s path into the retail business. He worked 23 years in department stores in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Utah. Among his accomplishments, according to his family, was hiring the first African American employee at Lord & Taylor in New York City, in 1954.
In 1968, Bennett met Janet Petrey. The two were married on Dec. 30 of that year. With a combined family of 10 children, the Bennetts moved to Salt Lake City, to Michael’s old neighborhood of Gilmer Park, where the family has lived for 48 years.
In 1978, Bennett left the retail trade to pursue his acting career. “I have made a deliberate choice to get out of the non-acting profession,” Bennett told the Tribune in 1978. “I would hope I won’t have to alter that. If I can keep body and soul together I will be all right.” By then, he had already been performing versions of “A Christmas Carol” and his Dickens play for a decade.
Bennett is survived by his wife, Janet; his brother, Stephen; children Michele Bennett, Mark Petrey, Christopher Bennett, Karee Petrey Cannon, Hal Bennett, Rose-Marie Bennett Smith, Franklin Bennett, Nick Bennett, Creighton Petrey and Geoffrey Bennett; 35 grandchildren; and 61 great-grandchildren. Six of his seven siblings died previously.
A funeral service is set for Tuesday, Jan. 7, at 11 a.m., at the Yale Ward, 1431 Gilmer Drive, Salt Lake City. A viewing is set for Tuesday, 9:30 to 10:45 a.m., prior to the service. Interment will be at Salt Lake City Cemetery.