BY PETER THOMPSON
Appeal Staff Writer
"Johnny B." launches a volley of boogie-woogie fireworks from the piano then leaps off the stage like a lemming.
Rows of Empire Elementary School students sitting "criss-cross applesauce" are dazzled by the 50-year-old with the purple-ribbon tie and canvas shoes. For the moment, he's done the nearly impossible and has won the full attention of the 100 kindergarten and first-graders gathered for the assembly.
He jumps back on stage and begins to tell the story of 10-year-old Bernie Jones, the literary creation of Johnny B.'s wife, Sharon Bushell.
Bernie lives in the 1950s. He loves rock 'n' roll music and is always getting into trouble.
Lots of trouble.
Today, his trouble has to do with a beehive he brought to school for show-and-tell, a swarm of bees and his "snarling" substitute teacher and nemesis, ruler-wielding Mrs. Broadbottom.
Sharon Bushell takes the stage to read the story from her book "The Trouble with Bernie" while Johnny B. (John Bushell), embellishes the scenes on piano.
After some baroquely ludicrous classroom high jinks, Broadbottom is chasing Bernie around the monkey bars with a stick, threatening to whack him like a mob rat.
But what follows is a happy ending, both in the trials of Bernie Jones and the real-life literacy mission of Sharon and John Bushell.
"The whole purpose of the show is to focus on writing, writing, writing and then when that's done, rewriting," says John.
After raising two kids, the Homer, Alaska, couple are spending their empty-nest years touring schools around the country promoting reading and writing.
"There are new standards these kids are going to have to live up to," says John, noting the recent changes in SAT tests that include an essay-writing section.
The sentiment is echoed by a banner that hangs above the office of the school, pledging that every student will be able to read at their grade level by third grade.
"The Trouble with Bernie" is the first in a series of five books written by Sharon.
The pair have been touring elementary schools across the country since Nov. 11.
"A good part of the proceeds from the book and CD go toward the school's library," says John.
The show is a mix of music, storytelling, humor and dancing.
After blowing through a rollicking, ivory-sliding "Great Balls of Fire," John keeps the message clear.
"Reading is so important!" he enthuses while encouraging the children to exit the auditorium snapping their fingers to Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme.
"Keep reading!" he says.
n Contact reporter Peter Thompson at email@example.com or 881-1215.