Actress and singer Debra Bluford, known for her work in comedies and musicals, died on Thursday of pancreatic cancer. She had been diagnosed three weeks ago, according to a friend.
A regular on many Kansas City stages, Bluford performed in nearly 20 shows at the American Heartland Theatre before it closed in 2013. She had also acted with Kansas City Actors Theatre, Musical Theatre Heritage, New Theatre & Restaurant and Quality Hill Playhouse.
In the early 1990s, she had roles in the films "Article 99," "A Matter of Justice," and "Dead Before Dawn."
Bluford, whose married name was Bluford-Johnson, moved to the Kansas City area from Norman, Oklahoma, with her husband and then-toddler son in 1984. She made her Kansas City debut in November of that same year, playing Aunt Ethel in "Harvey" at the former Waldo Astoria Dinner Playhouse.
Soon after arriving in Kansas City, as she recalled for a New Theatre Facebook post, "I pulled out the yellow pages, looked up 'live theater' and called the dinner theater to set up an audition with Dennis Hennessy." (Hennessy and Richard Carrothers are the owners of the New Theatre in Overland Park, Kansas.)
"I will never forget stepping onto the Waldo stage that first time, looking out into the audience ... and the overwhelming feeling of excitement and responsibility of living out my dream," she said.
Bluford earned a BFA in Acting/Performance from the University of Oklahoma in 1981, and went on to perform with the Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma City Symphony.
On Friday, Bluford's Facebook wall was flooded with remembrances.
"I watched her perform for decades and, as time went by, my admiration for her gifts as a performer just kept growing. She was a big presence whose passing leaves a void," wrote former Kansas City Star and KC Studio theater critic Robert Trussell.
"I will miss her big, big laugh," he added.
"I was lucky enough to work with the brilliantly funny Deb Bluford. It was a dream come true!" wrote actor Kyle Mowry, who worked with her in "The Odd Couple," at the American Heartland Theatre. "Her timing, impeccable! She was sweet, joyful and always there if you needed a hug."
Actor, singer and dancer Stasha Case said Bluford "had a huge heart, an infectious laugh ... an endless amount of talent, and made everyone feel special."
"My life is better having known you and a bit darker now that you are gone," wrote Brenda Williams, a classmate from the University of Oklahoma.
"The whole Kansas City theatre community has lost another friend, champion and performer," The Barn Players Community Theatre posted on its Facebook page. "Please remember her as one of the best comedic actors around. One who was as generous, kind and funny off the stage as on."
"Deb was a kind, warm-hearted person, a consummate theatre professional, and wow…could she make people laugh," New Theatre & Restaurant wrote on its Facebook page. "Our deepest sympathies go out to her family, always the center of her life."
A community celebration of Bluford's life is scheduled on Monday, December 16, at 2 p.m. at the New Theatre, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park, Kansas. 913-649-7469.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.