When Jim Usher came to American Heritage School in Plantation 25 years ago, the small school had no Fine Arts Department, theater or big musical productions.
Over the years, Usher helped grow the fledgling drama department to a nationally recognized program with nine drama teachers and at least two musical productions a year.
On Sunday, Usher, who had a 22-year Broadway theater career before coming to the Plantation private school in the early 1990s to teach English, sat back and watched as his former students from the last 25 years returned to say goodbye through song and dance.
Usher, who always said “life is about choices,” retired at the end of this school year and will no longer be at the helm of the department at American Heritage, 12200 W. Broward Blvd.
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“My feet no longer wanted to hold me up,” he said after the nearly two-hour tribute that included songs from different musicals Usher led over the years. “It was time to say goodbye.”
But the students, many of whom have gone on to perform in Broadway shows or moved to New York City or California, couldn’t let him go quietly.
“He doesn’t like to be in the spotlight,” said former student Emily Katz, 23. She prepared a speech, and said Usher, now in his early 60s, inspired her passion.
“He has given me the majority of the opportunities for which I am grateful,” she said from behind a lectern. “We are here because you have unapologetically changed the course of our lives.”
Nina VanDerhoof, who co-chaired the department with Usher, spent the last few months trying to plan the show and keep it a secret from Usher.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said,
By choosing songs from various productions the school put on over the years, the students brought back memories for Usher.
There was Lesley Majzlin, who graduated in 1994 and was the school’s first theater scholarship recipient. She sang "Fifty Percent" from "Ballroom."
“He was the first person to really believe in me,” she said after the show.
Brian Blattman, who graduated in 2000, came back to sing "Falling" from "They’re Playing Our Song," a show he did when he attended the school.
“He always knew which role we would be perfect for,” Blattman said.
Blattman said he remembers Usher forcing him out of his comfort zone and making him perform a monologue with cursing because it was something he didn’t like.
“I am a better person because of it,” said Blattman, who graduated from the University of Miami and now teaches piano and voice.
The school’s founder and president, William Laurie, credits Usher with growing the student population and creating a niche for the school, which now has about 2,400 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The school has won countless state and national awards for performing arts.
Laurie also said Usher helped create the nearly 900-seat theater for performances. “He worked with the architect to make sure it was perfect."
Laurie announced Sunday that the building will now be named for Usher.
“We are now going to have the house of Usher,” he said to a round of applause.
At the end of the Broadway-style show, Usher, who plans on relaxing and traveling in his retirement, said he couldn’t be more proud.
“There is no way I can thank them,” he said, fighting back tears. “What they did today was share back with me what I have spent the last 25 years doing. It’s overwhelming.”