'Hey Dude, It's Ben Curtis!' - A visit with one of the stars of Off-Broadway's JOY

Everyone is familiar with the Maytag Repairman--one of television marketing's most famous characters. Mature television viewers will also recall Madge the Manicurist, the Doublemint Twins, the Breck Girl, Rosie the Waitress and Molly Goldberg, who leaned out her window and proclaimed that her neighbors should use SOS scouring pads because, "with soap, it's loaded!" And who could forget the Taster's Choice lovebirds? Younger viewers will add to the list The Dell Dude who represented Dell Computers and made "Dude, you're getting a Dell" an oft-mimicked catchphrase.

The public hasn't forgotten Steve, The Dell Dude. Anyone who thinks otherwise should amble into the Actor's Playhouse where Ben Curtis, the actor who played the hyper energetic pitchman, is appearing in the cast of John Fisher's romantic comedy JOY. As members of the audience realize who the actor on stage is, they nudge each other and whisper, "that's him" or "that's the Dell guy!" Very few people realize that Curtis is a serious actor who not only studied mime and the cherished Italian tradition of commedia dell'arte but has studied with Lee Strasburg and at the Tisch School of the Arts. He has performed at the Edinburgh Festival and the Amsterdam Street Theater. None of this is the kind of background one would conjure for a young man who made a splash representing a computer company on television and in print.

'Hey Dude, It's Ben Curtis!' - A visit with one of the stars of Off-Broadway's JOY

Sitting down for a meal with Ben Curtis proved to be an fascinating experience. The young actor is extremely amiable and his blue eyes sparkled as he spoke freely of the achievements and disappointments of his career. Curtis was quick to praise his teachers, especially Robert Clark, Bill Balzac and Steve Wangh-each of whom influenced him greatly in different ways. Yet he wasn't afraid to express his opinions on controversial subjects either. Time flew so quickly that the stage manager had to phone him with a reminder there was a show to do that evening.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the actor is the son of an Episcopal minister and a devoted schoolteacher. The actor charts his interest in show business to the time he met magician David Copperfield. Curtis was only four years old and Copperfield was about to perform one of his illusions and was soliciting volunteers for a specific illusion and requested that Curtis join them. The youngster was too shy to take part in the proceedings. However, he did get to meet Copperfield and that moment sparked a keen interest in the lad who went on to get a magic kit and perform his magic tricks whenever people came to visit. He became a performer at birthday parties and at thirteen he started his own business. He even went on to become a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians, "I performed for all ages at all events and participated in competitions all around the USA. I studied with some of the greatest people in the world and learned about showmanship, technique, versatility and imagination. That really changed my life. I used magic as a platform to create all kinds of theater because I learned to create my own style of theater as well."

When asked whether he had ever given consideration to creating a theater piece which employed elements of magic the way illusionist Doug Henning did many years ago, Curtis responded, "Absolutely. In fact, when I was seventeen I did that. I combined the story of my life, acting, music I had written, ideas I had written, as well as mime and dance into a full-scale show. It was called TWILIGHT and it brought audiences into me and I developed a lot of stories." Once he got cast in the Dell commercials all of that ended because his commitment to the computer company was so time consuming. He flew all over the country making personal appearances and even showed up on QVC-the television shopping channel-representing the computer company.

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Joe Panarello is one of those people who have most certainly been born with theater in their blood. As an actor, Joe has played such varied roles as Harry Roat in Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark, Jimmy Smith in No, No Nanette and Lazer Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof a vehicle he's performed in several times and designed the sets for on one occasion. He's also directed productions of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and Henrich Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Joe is a respected author and although his latest work, The Authoritative History of Corduroy won't be published until this summer, it is already being translated into several different languages by a group of polyglot nuns in Tormento, Italy.. The proceeds from their labors will go to the restoration of the nearby Cathedral of Gorgonzola.