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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Life in theater for Robert Boles of Sturgeon Bay, Part 2

Critic At Large

Co-artistic director, etc., of Third Avenue Playhouse

Robert Boles in December 1998 in front of the Allen Theatre in Cleveland, the first stop for the national tour of the musical “Footloose.”

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Robert Boles has stories galore about “Footloose” the Broadway musical, not the movie with Kevin Bacon of Six Degrees of Separation fame.

Ask Robert Boles about Coach Dunbar of the show, and he has his own outpouring of Six Degrees of Separation.

“By that time – 1998 – I had been in New York since 1984. I knocked around. I did some amount of work. I finally did an off-Broadway show (James Valcq’s ‘Zombies from the Beyond’), and I did lots of readings. Mostly my work took me out of New York to regional theaters. But I had auditioned steadily throughout all those years, so I got to know certain casting directors.

“‘Footloose’ had just opened on Broadway maybe two months prior to that audition. Normally, a national tour would take a little longer to pull together. They would see how well the business did in New York so they could warrant to have a national tour. But this one was happening almost immediately. And the reason for that was they had envisioned ‘Footloose’ as being done in arenas like a rock ‘n’ roll show. Somewhere along the line before it opened on Broadway, that notion was thrown out the window. They fashioned it into a standard Broadway vehicle.

“They had all these dates set up around different places everywhere around the country. They had an enormous amount of lighting and sound equipment. We toured with a dozen semi trucks, and at least nine of those enormous trucks were just lights and sound. It was amazing.

“So they made the decision to turn those dates into a regular tour. I don’t know how I got that audition, actually. It’s just one of those things where the casting director who I had auditioned for before many times contacted my agent. And they were casting this thing very quickly. They called in six guys. Normally it would be a couple dozen.

“So all six of us were there, and one after another we auditioned. I sang for them and I read for them and then I got home and got a phone call. It was like being shot out of a cannon. It truly was. There was no buildup for it. If you had a successful audition for a Broadway show, then that would lead to a callback and maybe a second or a third callback. But this was, no, they were on a schedule.

“Apparently they said, ‘Send me six of your best people here,’ and they did, and they picked me.

“And not only was I hired to do that part (Coach Dunbar), I was hired to be the understudy of the leading man (the Rev. Shaw Moore). That was something I had never done. I had never understudied in my life. Now suddenly, I’m in this multi-zillion-dollar production, and I’m understudying the lead.

“Well, I tell you, understudies don’t get anywhere near the rehearsal time those people that are cast initially do. You just have to follow them around, watch their rehearsals and then you have to go on. You have understudy rehearsals every week, but that’s really just to take you from one scene to the next, so they’re not really comprehensive ones.

“I remember I was just nervous as hell going into rehearsals because here – a big Broadway production I was around and suddenly I’m understudying this guy. I would follow him around. His name was Darren Kelly. I would say, ‘Darren?’ and ask how he was every day. ‘Feeling good?’ ‘Feeling great?’ ‘Okay?’ ‘Let me get this chair out of your way.’ I didn’t want anything to happen to this man. Luckily, he was one of those actors who never missed in his whole career. This was a guy who never missed a show. So I was fortunate with that.

“So, yeah, I dropped into this production. It was really amazing to see the machinery of this thing. In theater, we have what is called the 10 out of 12 rehearsal, which is basically a technical rehearsal 10 hours out of 12. You’re rehearsing 10 hours and get two hours for a dinner break in the middle. We had about two weeks of 10 out of 12 for that show. Normally, you would have one, maybe two days.

“This was so complicated to put together. I mainly did regional theater and small productions. I’d never been in a Broadway production. I’d been around people who had done them, but I never actually had been in one before. It’s an enormous machine. You feel the weight – even a small part like I had – you feel the weight of the responsibility of that.

“I was working with some dancers who were just draw-droppingly good. Everybody is at the top of their game. The lighting guy, the sound people, the musicians in that orchestra – everybody was just at a peak of their game. Just to be around all that was really exciting.

“We started our tour in Cleveland and played there for six weeks or so. Our second stop right after Cleveland was in Green Bay (eight performances Jan. 5-10, 1999, at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts).

Headline from review in Green Bay, 1999.

“Shortly after we left Green Bay, I’m in the middle of a performance, and I come off stage, and the stage manager says, ‘You’re going to New York.’ ‘What?’ ‘You’re going to New York. They’ve had a problem with the understudy in New York. The main guy is out, and his understudy is sick. They have a third understudy who’s a swing for all the male roles, but they need him to stay that way. So you’re going to New York into the Broadway show, to play the leading role.’ I was maybe six weeks into this tour and had my miniscule number of rehearsals every week, so suddenly in the first act of ‘Footloose’ they tell me I’m going to New York. As soon as I take off my clothes, they are packing them away – because I have an understudy. That’s how these things work. I have an understudy, and they were bringing his clothes up, taking mine away, bringing out my understudy clothes for the leading man and shipping them off to New York because I was leaving that night. And that’s all I could think of during the performance of that show in Columbus, ‘Oh my god, oh my god.’ And I get off at intermission, and something else had happened, and they would come into the dressing room and pull things away from me and all that. So by the end of the show, everything was packed up and ready to go out the door. And then they said, ‘Oh, never mind, the problem got solved.’ ‘What?’ It was a mixture of total relief and being so angry – ‘You made me go through all that?’ It was like going through a ringer, but it was not really the way I wanted to make my Broadway debut – being rushed out of Columbus, Ohio, to have my first go-round as a leading man in a Broadway show. But I eventually got to play the part on the road many times.

“The guy I was understudying went on vacation. There were a couple of other times where he had to be out, and I got a fair amount. My parents were in New Orleans when I got to play the leading role all week. My parents got to see me do it, and I was thrilled for them.

(Robert Boles spoke of his formative years in the first part of this column:

“It was a great run. People would show up in different places. When I was out in Los Angeles doing the show, it was in the old Pantages Theatre. They used to do the Oscars all the time at the Pantages. It’s a beautiful old movie palace. That was the best part of the tour for me – going to all these old theaters. There’s one in St. Louis, the old Fox Theatre, which is just beautiful. So I was in heaven.

“At the opening night in Los Angeles at the Pantages – you know, they kind of throw out free tickets to celebrities in whatever city – and, of course, in Los Angeles there’s a lot of them just to get buzz and attention. I remember at the opening-night party, a friend of mine said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to come, Patricia Morison is here. Patricia Morison was the original Kate in ‘Kiss Me Kate.’ So she was a Broadway icon. Suddenly, she comes to a show with me in it. So I spent a delightful evening with Patricia Morison.

“Dean Pitchford, who wrote ‘Footloose,’ lives in Los Angeles had us up to his house for a party. So I go to the bathroom, and there is his Oscar (for Best Original Song for ‘Fame’) in the bathroom. So I quickly got somebody – ‘Bring a camera’ – and I pulled down his Oscar and lay down in his bathtub and got my picture taken with Dean Pitchford’s Oscar, then carefully put it back. I was afraid I was going to drop the thing or scratch it.

“That leads to another story involving Dean Pitchford. I was eventually put into the Broadway show for a couple of months after the tour was over. A couple of things happened with that. I was thrilled to do it, and I had the star dressing room at the 46th Street Theatre, which is now the Richard Rodgers Theatre where ‘Hamilton’ is being done. So that was thrilling.

“Right before I went in, I got a phone call, and it was from Dean Pitchford. He was calling me from Los Angeles congratulating me on going into the show. It was really nice. ‘We’re really glad to have you’ and all that. Just a really nice call. I’ve got to tell you how unusual in show business that is. Here’s a guy who has no – there’s nothing he can get from me whatsoever. It was a pure act of kindness and generosity. I doubt if he even knew me at all. I met him briefly, I was at his house, held his Oscar, but, you know, we’re not buddies or pen pals or anything, and suddenly he’s calling with this little call of congratulations. It just meant everything. It was such a nice thing.

“Now, my history. When I was a student in New York, I was going to school during the day at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, but at night I had a couple of jobs. I was assistant house manager at Sullivan Street Playhouse with ‘The Fantasticks’ for a while. Most of the time, I was what they call a ‘candy boy’ in Broadway houses. I put on a blue blazer with gold trim and a crushed velvet fake bowtie, and I sold candy or opera glasses or checked coats or whatever. And we were called candy boys. I don’t think they call them candy boys anymore. It was mainly because there were no women doing it at the time. It was all guys. So I was in many Broadway theaters.

46th St. Theatre during the run of “Chicago” when Boles was part of the support staff.

“I was at 46th Street Theatre where ‘Footloose’ ended up. The show when I was a student was ‘Chicago’ – the original production with Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orbach – and got to know all the people around that show. So years later, I’m coming in to ‘Footloose,’ and I recognized one of the ushers from that time. That had to be 20 or more years later. These women – it’s primarily women – who usher are in the usher’s union in New York and do not give up that job. They are there until they’re 500 years old, and you don’t want to cross them. So I recognized one, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I used to be here when “Chicago” ran here in 1976 and was one of the candy boys.’ She clearly didn’t remember me, but I said enough things to convince her that I knew what I was talking about. She immediately clapped her hands and said, ‘Girls, girls,’ and lined up all the others in the lobby and said, ‘This is Bob Boles. He used to be one of us’ and then very dramatically said, ‘and now he’s up there. It can happen.’ It was a very unexpected thing.

“I just flashed back to talking to a lot of these women when I was there. Whether or not they liked the show was directly related to whether or not people in that show were nice to them. I mean, they could have been watching the greatest show ever, but if nobody was nice to them in that show, it stunk, it was horrible. By being nice, all you had to do was say ‘Hello.’ Otherwise they’d say (in a New York accent), ‘Most of these people, they’re just stuck up. They don’t talk to us,’ So I made a point of after every show that I’d see one of them to say ‘Hello,’ especially during matinees.

Boles savoring in a major role Richard Rodgers Theatre, former home ‘Chicago’ and today home to ‘Hamilton.’

“So the ‘Footloose’ experience really did change my life. It was almost two years of working with this great company. I was able to be a little financially independent afterward, which was something I welcomed but was not used to being. And that led to other things in my life, not the least of which is why I’m here right now doing what I’m doing in Door County.

“I met lots of people and am still in communication with a few of them. In fact, when James was casting ‘The Spitfire Grill,’ they were having trouble casting one of the roles, Effy, the town gossip. The casting was in New York, and they didn’t really get the Wisconsin type. Agents were sending a lot of Italian or Jewish comedians and all this stuff – very funny women – but it really wasn’t right. So, I said, ‘I worked with somebody in “Footloose,” and physically I guess she’s not exactly right, but she can certainly do what needs to be done.’ And it was really at the last minute, and they called her in. Her name is Mary Gordon Murray. Mary played the female adult lead – in ‘Footloose’ you have do distinguish who the adult leads are and who the teenage leads are – and so really Mary got hired for the original cast of ‘The Spitfire Grill’ because she worked with me in ‘Footloose,’ and I was able to recommend her for that. So that was a really wonderful thing to happen.

“Speaking of teenagers, there’s so many teenagers or what I like to call ‘showbusiness teenagers,’ who can be from between 18 and middle age. In our production, the youngest one was indeed a teenager – 15 or 16 – and most of them were in their mid-20s or so. They looked young enough to pass. But, believe me, working with that many … They outnumbered the adults. Like two-thirds of the cast was them, and the rest were us. So (the story is) basically the adults go out and yell at the kids and then leave and the kids just dance their frustrations away for the next 20 minutes ’til the adults come back and yell at them again.

A ‘Footloose’ cast from the musical.

“So it was truly like going to work every day watching every mistake you’ve ever made in your life just pass you by. And not just mistakes, your entire youth you could see. You’d want to just shake them sometimes, ‘Really, don’t do that,’ or ‘Do you really want to make that decision?’ But if you did that, you’d drive yourself crazy, and they’d hate you forever. So all you could do was watch. (Laughs). And they were having the best time, believe me. I can only imagine what I would be like to be that age and doing what we were doing then. If it were me, I would have been on cloud nine and been right with them, making every possible mistake and having a blast doing it.

“So I’m forever indebted to ‘Footloose.’ But it was not only great working experience, it truly did change the course of my life. Things after ‘Footloose’ changed dramatically for me. I grew financially independent – not rich by any means, but I was able to pay off all my debts, and I reached a point that I didn’t really have to say yes to everything.

“When I first got to New York, I said, ‘I’ll do anything,’ and did. But (after ‘Footloose’) I would get an audition for something, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that. I’ve done that and, fine.’ And I found myself saying no a lot. And I thought, ‘Wow.’ That kind of raised some red flags for me. ‘Okay, if I keep saying no, does that mean maybe I should be doing something else?’ If you say no long enough in this business, with agents and all that stuff, after a while they just stop calling. I knew that, so I would go on a few auditions or interviews that I knew I really didn’t want to take just for that reason, and then it got into my head. The thing that really made my decision for me was 9/11 happened.”

Tuesday: The story of Robert Boles turns to the nuts and bolts of theater – teaching and directing.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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