Excerpts from an Article by Josh Shaffer
Rusty Bucket Man
He toured the country as an actor, but when John Demers fell ill, he realized he had everything he needed in Apex, and created “The Rusty Bucket Kids,” an educational TV show set right at home.
In his faster-paced Hollywood days, John Demers drove all the limousines in “The West Wing,” screeching through the streets of the nation’s capital, running red lights with pretend-President Martin Sheen in the back seat.
He’d pop up on camera sometimes and occasionally get a line in the top-rated political thrill show. The flashiest moment by far came when Demers got to send his black, stretch limo into a tailspin behind the Lincoln Memorial — all without a stunt man.
Demers hobnobbed with the famous. He jetted around the country, living out of hotels, acting, producing, being a big shot.
But all of that stopped two years ago.
As Demers lay in his hospital bed, dying of advanced diverticulitis, he promised to quit traveling and to embrace life in cozy Apex, where he could watch his children grow up, see his wife every day, and find the drama hidden on Salem Street.
The ideas that spun out of his sickbed morphed into “The Rusty Bucket Kids,” the children’s show set on the streets of Apex that stars Demers’s daughter and son — Roxanna and John Coleman — as time-traveling history students.
In the pilot episode, which has now aired on two Triangle TV stations, the Rusty Bucket Kids meet a teenage Abe Lincoln, who is just taking shape as the self-taught lawyer who would one day end slavery.
The kids don costumes suited for 19th-century Indiana, and they encourage a frustrated young Abe to keep reading, keep studying by candlelight, keep reaching for life beyond the backward frontier.
And today, when Demers walks on Salem Street past The Rusty Bucket, the real-life country store where his show takes place, you can tell he’s far happier creating his own story in his own town with his own family.
“When I was sick,” he says, “I told myself, ‘If I live through this, I will see these diamonds in the rough in my own community. I will do family projects. I will pay no hotel bills.’”
Demers’s own stage debut came at age 11, when both he and his mother took parts in the Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of “Annie Get Your Gun.” A year later, he scored the part of Artful Dodger in “Oliver,” which led to parts in local commercials. For a time, he ate ice cream with the North Carolina State University cheerleaders in spots for the now-defunct Quik Pik convenience stores.
But by the mid-’90s, Demers knew that acting and producing suited him best, and he spent more than a decade working in television and film, often thousands of miles from his family.
Demers lives in New Hill, just a few miles southwest of Apex, but as he recovered, he walked down Salem Street, the larger town’s main drag.
It looks, even in 2011, like a street where you might set a production of “Our Town,” or maybe an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” You couldn’t find a clearer portrait of Americana than on those wide sidewalks, or under those green awnings, or munching at The Pineapple Tea Room.
And as he walked, Demers always stopped at The Rusty Bucket’s big, redbrick building, resting in a green rocker, maybe playing a game of checkers on the barrel out front.
Owners Pam and Mack Thorpe checked on him between selling candles, spices, and knickknacks. And as Demers imagined his new project, he thought, “Why not here?”
Demers spent time in Richmond, Virginia, growing up, and he got married in Colonial Williamsburg. He appreciates a place that looks the same every time you go back to visit.
It’s not hard to imagine a 19th-century farmer buying dry goods along Salem Street, and from there, it’s not hard to imagine yourself hobnobbing with famous people who aren’t quite famous yet.
When you live near the tracks of a 100-year-old railroad, it’s easier to imagine yourself traveling backward through a puff of steam. So that’s exactly what the Rusty Bucket Kids do, climbing onto an engine nicknamed Steamy.
Production occasionally shuts down a street or two, but otherwise, the locals appreciate the attention brought by Demers’s fiction. The Rusty Bucket, coming off years of recession, enjoyed one of its better years in 2011.
It’s not “West Wing,” and his actors don’t have names you recognize, but as he pops into the shops along Salem Street, checking in on sick friends, asking how business is faring, Demers feels the richness of his second life — a set he created with the props scattered across his backyard.