What was your favorite role?
That’s something you really have to think about, there are a variety. Probably Truman Capote, because it was the most challenging, and I did it several times. I was directed by the playwright who was the original director on Broadway. I did that show in town and on the road. It’s a wonderful script and a wonderful role.
There are several others that I like, Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” I also love Melvin P. Thorpe in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
I’ve done “Oklahoma!” eight times, playing Ali Hakim and Andrew Carnes, they’re both fun roles. I’ve never been a fan of “Oklahoma!”, but the roles were a lot of fun.
“42nd Street” is about the perfect musical, incredible music, good script, wonderful costumes, incredible tap dancing. It’s got all the elements, it’s got great characters, it’s one of the few up there that I think is a true top-notch musical.
Have you counted the number of roles you’ve done?
I’ve probably played more than 250 characters in 400 different productions.
Tell me about some of your career highlights.
One of the biggest things I did was a national tour of “42nd Street” that lasted for a whole year. We traveled to 71 different cities, which was pretty amazing. I also had the opportunity to perform “Damn Yankees” in Cortland, NY. Another great experience was performing “Greater Tuna” in Ohio and in a production of “Hairspray in Springfield, Missouri.
Believe it or not, I even worked at SeaWorld at one point! And here’s a funny one – I got hired by my friend Virginia to be a fortune teller for their Halloween nights. She was the entertainment director, and it was a blast.
On top of that, I got to direct “Our Town” outside of Boston, set in an actual cemetery.. It’s been quite a ride! Although, as I like to tell people, I can’t seem to hold down a job for too long.
You’ve written more than 35 plays at Mosley Street, what is the secret to writing for that unique art form?
I appreciate that you say it’s an art form, because that puts me up with Sondheim, Shaw, Ibsen and Chekhov. Those are all guys that live down the street from me… One’s a plumber…
I was in Ohio doing a musical. The folks at Mosley called me up and said, the royalties to these shows are killing us. And since you have written several shows, would you consider writing a melodrama for us? And I thought eww, I don’t know. I thought about it for a couple of days, you know I looked at other melodramas and discovered the formula, then I sat down, put a gun to my own head and came up with a pretty good story. Mosley did it and the show went over very well. Then the owners said would you write another? I think I’ve written around 50 melodramas. It’s actually the same melodrama fifty times, I just change the last few lines of the show to make it different.
I have seven grandkids and I have used each of their names in the title of a show. They think that is pretty cool. The best one I probably did was the first one I wrote with my oldest granddaughter Samantha. After I wrote it, a friend of mine saw the show and was raving about how good it was, and I was thankful, they are friends and they flatter you, so I was taking it with a grain of salt.
He said, “You know why it’s so good? I was like no, I was drunk most of the time I was writing it, but he said, “It’s so simple, it’s not cluttered it’s just a simple show with stuff right out in front of you and it’s just well written.” He was right, so I try not to get too convoluted with the stories. I’m always changing them up. One day I thought, why can’t the villain be a woman? So, I wrote one for my friend Angela Geer, she was the villain, so since that time I’ve had several female villains.
What’s easier writing or directing?
Well, as an actor, I can tell you that it really depends on the people you’re working with and the story you’re telling. If I have a great director who I really admire, and the cast is great, and the story is captivating, then it’s a lot easier for me to get into character and do my thing.
Now, as for directing, I’ve had some amazing experiences. For instance, I directed a group of college students in a production of a show I saw on Broadway with Alan Alda, “Jake’s Women”. The cast was one guy and seven girls, and from the first rehearsal, they were so dedicated to their roles and eager to learn. It was a collaborative effort, and I loved that they were open to my ideas and also willing to share their own. It was one of the best productions I’ve directed.
But of course, when you’re directing talented actors like Monte Wheeler, Kyle Vespestad, and Scott Noah, then it’s a different story. These guys are so brilliant that I hardly have to say anything to them. We’ve been working together for so long that we’re practically like family, and we have a blast both on and off stage. We’re actually gearing up to do season 7 of our show in September, and it’s always a riot. We love each other so much that it’s almost criminal that we get paid to do what we do.
What is the current state of the live theater in Wichita?
It’s like the world… chaos, no. But there are a few places that are really thriving. The Mosely Theater is one of them, and it’s thanks to Monte and Brandon, who took over from the previous owner, Patty. They’ve done an amazing job and it’s become a great place for actors, playwrights, and directors.
Roxy’s is also doing really well under the leadership of Rick Baumgardner and the other owners. They are doing great things. They are creative, inspirational, and they’re good friends. I actually know Rick pretty well because he was my student teacher once upon a time.
I don’t get to other theatres in Wichita as often as I’d like to because I’m so busy with my own theater work. and I hate to say it, I do so much theater, when I have a day off, I just want to sit and veg out. Like a doctor that wants to play golf on their day off, you’re not going to watch a surgery.
I don’t get to other theatre in Wichita as often as I’d like to I hate to say it, I do so much theater, when I have a day off, I just want to sit and veg out. I’ve been fortunate enough to have done shows with Wichita Community Theatre, Music Theatre of Wichita, The Forum Theatre, Center for the Arts, Wichita State Theatre. I did a production of “Naughty Marietta” for MTW, even though I had a principal role, I felt like I was dropped on Mars because everyone else seemed to know what was going on except for me.
I’ve also done some shows for The Forum and they always do really good work. I did “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” that were wonderful productions. Kathy, the director, always has great shows and has been doing great productions for a long time. As a matter of fact, I’ve known her since way back in 1968 when I did my first show for Ted Morris and the Crown Players.
Advice for kids interested in Theater?
First, it’s a good idea to have a second job that pays money. Unfortunately, theater doesn’t always pay the bills, so it’s important to have a backup plan.
Another important thing to remember is to learn from your fellow performers and not be jealous. It’s natural to feel envious of someone who is really talented, but envy and jealousy are two different things. Instead, try to work hard and learn from those around you.
In theater, it’s also important not to get too upset if you don’t get the role you want. Sometimes theater is unfair, and people get cast based on who they know rather than their talent. So, it’s important to focus on doing your best and be proud of your audition, even if you don’t get the part.
One piece of advice, don’t sit around waiting for that call that you’ve been cast, evaluate your auditions honestly and then move on. You may have been great and still you didn’t get cast. Other opportunities will come along if you stay open and receptive.
Finally, being professional is important. If rehearsal starts at 7:00, be there at least ten minutes early so that you’re ready to go on stage when it’s time. And remember, nobody’s perfect, so just do your best and work to get along with others.
What is the importance of arts in the schools?
I’ve taught at Southeast, Andover, Independent School, and Wichita State, and let me tell you, it’s like not having oxygen when you’re not exposed to theater and arts. I mean, it’s what life is all about, right? Opera, ballet, live theater, concerts, programs in elementary school, band concerts – they’re all part of the arts, and they’re amazing at WSU right now.
In fact, in my class about the art of theater, I asked my students how many of them have never seen a live production before, and there were at least five hands that went up out of 23 students! That’s crazy to me! And in a larger class I taught last semester with 75 people, I asked how many have never gone to a play, a musical, or a movie and never cried? And about 5 or 6 hands went up.
I feel so sorry for those students because they’re missing out on what art is supposed to do – move you. I remember sobbing so badly during a movie once that I went outside the door because I knew I was disturbing people around me. It was such a moving moment in the show, and I cared about that movie because it just touched me. And that’s what the arts are supposed to do – touch your heart, make you wise up, make you laugh, make you think, make you feel sad, and everything in between.
Of course, not every piece of art is going to resonate with everyone. But that’s okay. You don’t have to love every movie or play you see. But it’s important to be exposed to the arts because they make you a complete person, in my opinion.
What’s your biggest blooper?
I could write an encyclopedia. I was doing Golden Girls and I’m standing off stage, getting ready to make my entrance, and Kyle is standing right next to me. I walked straight out on stage and as soon as I went out, Monte saw me, and I realized at that moment, I was not supposed to be on stage. So, I didn’t say a word, walked backwards right back out the door, then Monte, made some crack which busted up the audience. . I walked backstage and Kyle was just laughing. I said, “You knew I wasn’t supposed to be out there, didn’t you?” He let me walk out there knowing I had nothing to say. Now that’s funny.
What’s the future look like for you?
At my age, it’s not looking good… but I’ve died on stage many times so it’s no big deal. I have been traveling a lot with my best friend Johnny Grove. We’ve done three or four cruises, London, Paris. Dublin, Brussels, Amsterdam, Mexico, Honduras, Bahamas, we drove from Boston to New York to Philly, down the coast to Florida, back through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Las Vegas and Los Angeles in 26 days
We see a lot of theater and see these different places. We saw “Company” in London and it was breathtaking. Just marvelous, they changed the lead character from a man to a woman, Stephen Sondheim rewrote it so a woman played the character of Bobby instead of the original with a man. There were five couples, four younger and one older. They switched two couples into mixed races and one gay couple. The music was 99% there, and the story was beautiful it was an exceptional production. It was starring Patti LuPone, my third show to see her. She can do no wrong.
And finally, how do you see your legacy in Wichita?
He was a good person, not close to perfect, but accomplishments are just accomplishments, but if you’re a good person, that’s what people remember. I hope people will think I was a good person. If so, I attribute that to my great parents, they were kind, wonderful people and also to so many beautiful and talented friends. Hopefully they’ll think, “He was a decent actor, yet he knew he could ALWAYS improve.” I’m one lucky SOB.
In case you missed part one of this two part series check out Small Frye.