Small Frye

This is the first part of a two part interview with local celebrity, Tom Frye.

Where are you from and what was your childhood like?

I was born in Wichita, Kansas. The first three years of my life we lived on Rose Hill Road right outside of town with my parents and four older brothers.  When I was three, we moved into the city. I went to Washington Elementary School.  My dad worked at Boeing, and we moved around for the company.  I lived in El Paso, Texas, Rapid City, South Dakota, Bossier City, Louisiana, and New Orleans, Louisiana, so I went to about 12 different schools and graduated from Wichita East.

Tom in High School
Courtesy: Tom Frye

How did you end up back in Wichita?

I moved back to live with my brother, I wanted to go to Wichita State, and I didn’t want to pay out-of-state tuition. My folks eventually retired and moved back to Wichita. 

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Tom with brother, John
Courtesy: Tom Frye

One day I figured it out and I’ve lived in 51 different houses and apartments.  My Dad, Kenneth and my mom, Margaret were married for 51 and a half years.  I was incredibly blessed.  My dad was a farm boy, his parents divorced when he was a year and a half.  In 1915, that was unheard of.  Dad lived with his mom, then moved into his grandparents’ house, his mom’s parents. My dad’s mother decided she didn’t want to raise them, so she let her parents adopt them.gave them My dad’s father was Roy Pickard so my dad was born Kenneth Pickard. But when he was adopted by his maternal grandparents, his name became Kenneth Frye.

The last few years they were parents in a group home for handicapped children.  They were wonderful people. My dad died when he was 71 and I took care of my mom until she passed away in 88. 

When did you discover theater?

I think I was about 6 or 7, and I still remember my dad bringing home a television in 53 -54 somewhere in there. And the only thing that I watched was the Mickey Mouse Club. These kids were performing and singing, and I thought I want to do that.  So, it’s Walt Disney’s fault.

What was your very first nonprofessional performance?

So, I never really had the chance to get involved in school productions because my family kept moving around. It wasn’t until I took a drama class at East High that I finally got a taste of the stage. But, of course, we had to move again, this time to New Orleans in the middle of my junior year, and unfortunately, they didn’t have a drama program there. However, they did offer speech classes, which the seniors got to use for their play. So, I joined speech class and it turns out my teacher thought I had some real talent. He thought I was the next Olivier, I was not quite Olivier, but I grew into that in a few months.  She asked me to write a Christmas program for the school, which was pretty daunting at first, but I eventually came up with a story about a toy shop and all the kids played different toys. I even got to play the jack in the box! I directed, wrote the story, designed the set, and acted all at once. It was a huge success, and I was thrilled.

May be an image of 1 person, standing and outdoors
Tom on vacation
Courtesy: Tom Frye

In my senior year IN NEW ORLEANS I auditioned for a play, the next day a lanky kid who heard I was pretty good, asked me to help him with his audition. I agreed and we both ended up getting cast.

Unfortunately, the play was going to be performed later in the semester and my family was moving again. I really wanted to stay and do the play, but my dad said no because he didn’t want me to fall behind in my studies. He gave me the choice of staying the whole semester or moving home.  I decided to move back home and graduate from East High.

Once back home, I auditioned for a local theater group and got cast. Looking back on it now, I sometimes wonder if I played a small part in John Larroquette’s successful career. He was the tall, lanky guy who asked me to help him land a role in the play.

What was your very first professional performance? 

I used to do some amateur stuff in Wichita and ended up making friends with five awesome people – Allen, Virginia, Karla, Bob, and Maryanne. We got along really well and decided to start a nightclub act together, which was super exciting. Bob played the drums and Maryanne played the piano, and we performed all around town.

Anyway, things changed over time – Bob and Maryanne ended up getting divorced and then remarried to different people. Bob ended up directing both of his children over the years. Small world, right? I’ve actually directed both of their children over the past few years.

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Courtesy: Tom Frye

Our first paid gig as a group was for a Boy Scout event. We were each paid five bucks and got to eat at the buffet. We, the Small Frye Company, were thrilled, nonetheless. We stayed together for about 10 years, but then Virginia, Allen, and Karla ended up leaving town.

After that, we added some new members to the group – Kathy, Ray, Steve, Susan, Angela, and both of my kids. It’s been quite a journey, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Who were your mentors?

I got started with Ted Morris, I did 40 or 50 shows with Ted. We did Crown Players, Empire House, Riverfest, and some 20 shows at the Uptown.  I was with his wife when he passed away. 

I learned a lot at WSU from Dr. Richard Welsbacher and Joyce Cavarozzi.

Anything directorially from Audrey Needles and Mary Jane Teall, they were as wonderful directors as Dick was an actor.

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Courtesy: Tom Frye

I learned and worked with many great thespians as well, Dennis Arnold, Allan Baker, John Boldenow, Rick Bumgardner, Karla Burns, Deb Campbell, Virginia Creamer, Michael Downs, Steve Frazier, Susan Frazier, Angela Geer, Anita Hillin, Steve Hitchcock, John Holly, J. R. Hurst, Bill Johnson, Pat Jones, Bob Kelly, Bruce Littrell, Thomas Ludwig, Jenny Mitchell, Christi Moore, Dick Morris,Ted Morris, David Neville, Scott Noah, Kathy Page, Patty Reeder, Marc Reeves, Mike Roark, Cindy Summers, Christine Tasheff, Kyle Vespestad, Monte Wheeler, Dan Williams, Ray Wills and many more. They were instrumental in creating great theatre in Wichita.

If you didn’t work in theater, what would you do?

I actually volunteered at Camp Wonderful for many years and eventually became Camp Director. My son was also Camp director for several years and my daughter volunteered as well. My granddaughter now works for the YESS Program, which is the name change from Camp Wonderful.

When I told her that the Starkey camp started in 1960 and that her great uncle was the one who started it, she was pretty impressed. And the best part is that just about everyone in my family has worked at that camp at some point or another. It’s definitely something I’m very proud of!

The Tortoise and the Hare – 2006 – Crown Uptown
Courtesy: Wichita Eagle

As for my own job history, I feel like I’ve done just about every job I could want to do. My very first job was actually selling donuts door-to-door back in the 50s when I was in third or fourth grade. There were a bunch of us kids who would meet on the corner on Saturday mornings, and this guy would drop us off with bags of fresh donuts. We’d go door-to-door and ask if people wanted to buy some, and they usually did! We’d get 25 cents per bag, which was a fortune to us back then. I remember thinking that selling donuts was going to be my career when I was just eight years old!

Tell me about your family.

I have two kids, a son, and a daughter.  My son is a Wichita Firefighter. And my daughter works for the Wichita Police Department.


What music do you listen to in your car?

I listen to the all Sinatra station on Sirius. I listen to NPR/KMUW most of the time. I will say this openly, I like country music and I listen to 105.7 until they start with their far-right garbage and then I switch it off.  At home I listen to Rossini, Maria Callas, 1940’s big band music, and 60’s rock and roll.

Which Golden Girl are you most like in real life?

I like to think of myself as intelligent, not bright, not genius, so a part of me is Dorothy. I can be cantankerous from time to time like Sophia. And I can be somewhat randy, like Blanche, and I would have to say I’m not much like Rose, but I like to think I’m a kind person, so maybe a little Rose.

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The Golden Girls
Courtesy: Tom Frye

Which of your cohorts is most like their Golden Girl character in real life?

These performers are all so incredible – they’re some of the best in the business, if you ask me. When we were casting for the Golden Girls, the director approached me for the role of Sophia because I was one of the shorter actors in the group. By that point, she had already cast everyone else, but I was thrilled to take on the part. Kyle was really into Betty White, so he wanted to play her character.

Courtesy: Roxy’s Downtown

But personally, my favorite was always Bea Arthur. I actually tried to get her to play a part in a show I was working on in New York a few years ago. It was called “At the Center of the Arts” and I wanted her to play the female character, Salome, opposite Richard White in “The Robber Bridgroom.”. I was ecstatic when she called me back and left a message with her home phone number! I called her back, and we ended up chatting for about half an hour, but unfortunately, she couldn’t do the show because she was working on her own one-woman production. Even still, she was so kind and wonderful to talk to.

“The Golden Girls” 2016
Courtesy: Wichita Eagle

Fast forward a few years and I was lucky enough to snag tickets to her one-woman show! It was just her and a piano player, but it was one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen. The very next day, I was telling my friend, who was her producer, about how much I loved Bea Arthur and he said, “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have taken you backstage!” I was absolutely floored – I would have loved to have met her in person.

Favorite restaurants in Wichita? 

I have my own table at Angelo’s, LOL, their food and the people that own it are fabulous.  I love Ty’s Diner, Thai Traditions, Bela Luna, Bel Ami, Ziggy’s. I clearly eat out way too much.  I also love Sport Burger, I love the family that owns it, and they are great people.

No photo description available.
Courtesy: Tom Frye

Who would play you in the Tom Frye movie? 

That’s funny, you know I get mistaken for Michael Douglas and Joe Pesci all the time.

I’d like to say Robert Redford, but he’s a little old. 

Robert Redford

I would like to say Mickey Rooney or Billy Barty.  Maybe Joel McHale.

What show tune would you want played at your funeral?

“Smile” by Charlie Chaplin.  Maybe “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”  “Happy Days are here again”, no I’m kidding.  That’s a tough question.  I’ve told my kids I don’t want people to have a chance to celebrate my death.  I don’t want a sendoff, I’ve been through enough of those in the last few years, and I am sick of burying my friends.

David Neville, Tom Frye, Michael Downs – 2008
Courtesy: The Wichita Eagle

Join us for part two of our interview with Tom Frye. We’re calling it Large Frye.

Check out other interviews on our The People that you Meet… page

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