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Tony-Winner Cullum Narrates 'Grinch' on Broadway!

John Cullum is clearly excited about his new role. He e-mailed the news the day after he agreed to play Old Max in the new Broadway musical version of Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas! I quickly replied with congratulations -- and then it sunk in.

"Wait a minute. Isn't Max the dog?"

Yep...the dog. Two dogs, actually.

As the tale unfolds on the stage of the Hilton Theatre, Old Max remembers his youth, when the grouchy Grinch tried to stop Christmas from coming to Whoville, reluctantly accompanied by his loyal dog, Max.

During rehearsals, he sent me a report. "I was amazed at how faithful our stage musical is to the original and what a wonderful thing it will be" for the younger kids. Older kids "will wish they could be on stage doing it and everybody else…will watch it with glee and wonder."

"Rusty Ross is perfection as Young Max and Patrick Page is awesome as the Grinch. He doesn't need a costume to make it believable, but I saw him yesterday in costume and he is really scary. And then when the moment comes, he is so touching and heartbreaking as the monster who finds out how miserable his life is. I am somehow surprised at how human the two of them become."

Oddly, this won't be the first time John has played a dog. As a precocious youngster, he entertained his family with a ditty that began:

"I'm a lazy little doggie and my name is Tot,
I can sit for half an hour on the same small spot…"

Fifty years ago, John Cullum arrived in New York from Knoxville, Tennessee, armed with two letters of recommendation from his drama professor and a file of photos from his college shows.

In the years since, he has won two Tony Awards (out of four nominations, the most recent for Urinetown), sung one of the leads on a Grammy Award winning cast album, been nominated for an Emmy (for the 1990s hit Northern Exposure), and received numerous other honors and accolades.

I've known John for 24 years (first as an avid fan, later as a family friend), and not long ago asked him to tell me about his first weeks in New York, and how he got there.

His very first onstage role was also a holiday event, an Easter pageant, no doubt meeting with the approval of his devout Southern Baptist family. As the youngest of five children, "little Johnny Cullum" wanted to be noticed.

In junior high, he started studying piano and trombone, but didn't stick with either. He took a folk dance class after school, excelling in English Country dance. "And then there were the plays!" He explains his youthful enthusiasm for acting: "What fun to get on a stage and pretend to be somebody else. You could be happy, sad, good or bad, make people laugh or almost cry and …it was all going to come out right in the end."

By high school he was playing leading roles with the school's Thespians, singing in the school choir and other groups, and working as a paid singer for a Baptist church. In his spare time, he lettered in tennis.

He attended the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, majoring in speech since the school didn't have a theater major at that time. "We'd do all the new plays, right out of New York." His first UT role was as Reporter Wilson in The Front Page. Soon he was regularly playing the leads, and rounded out his performing skills by studying and dancing with the Knoxville Ballet.

John served in the University's 1000-man Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) and eventually held the post of Colonel (the top student officer). He was also elected president of his fraternity, and was honored with a listing in the collegiate Who's Who. He continued with his athletic pursuits, playing on UT's Southeastern Conference Championship tennis team, and briefly touring Europe with his doubles partner before reporting for duty as an Army Captain in Korea.

His military service fulfilled, John returned to Knoxville, and spent the next year working with his parents in their real estate business, taking classes at UT toward a Master's Degree in Finance, and conducting the choir at the Dixie Lee Junction Baptist Church. But he wasn't happy in any of those roles.

That summer, he saw his chance, and took it. A friend was driving to New York and knew where they could stay free for two weeks. John and his Dad (the latter, reluctantly) agreed to give it two years. If John wasn't earning his way in theater by then, he'd come home to finish grad school and take his place in the family business.

On August 22, 1956, John piled into a car with his friend and two other young men who just wanted to see New York. They drove straight through.

"It was a 22 hour trip in those days. I slept the last part of the trip, and when we got to New York, I insisted that we go past the Empire State Building, and got out and looked…Well, you can't see the top of the Empire State Building when you're on 34th Street!"

They settled in at their temporary lodging, "a lovely apartment" on the Upper East Side whose occupant was out of town for two weeks, and John began making the rounds. He had a letter of introduction to a prominent agent, William Liebling, who was on the phone with Tallulah Bankhead when John and one of his Knoxville traveling companions arrived. Mr. Liebling took a quick look at John's letter and photos, and then asked John's friend if he had an agent. The friend was a good character type, very heavy set. The agent recommended that he go over to an office that John described as, "a grind-em-out kind of agency where people just hung out all the time. They didn't have people signed but just saw people over and over."

John's friend insisted that he wasn't there for work. "Mr. Cullum is the one you want to talk to."

Then, the agent turned to young John Cullum. "Do you have a job?"

"You mean as an actor? No, no I don't?"

"Do you plan to get one?"

"You mean as an actor? Well, yeah. Yeah."

"Well, my advice to you is to go back to Knoxville, Tennessee."

John laughed at the memory, and how he must have appeared. "This was a college kid, coming in off the street…a young guy, looking for leading roles on Broadway!"

John politely thanked him for advice but said that he didn't intend to follow it. Mr. Liebling then apologized and said that he didn't really know him or what he'd done, so his only real advise was for John to buy Show Business at the newsstand at 50th Street and follow all the leads. "I thanked him, and that's what I proceeded to do for the next few weeks. …You could get it on Wednesday night. You'd try to call everyone up as much as you could, as soon as you could, which was impossible because everyone else did the same thing. Then you'd send out all the resumes."

The other letter of recommendation was to Norris Houghton, who with T. Edward Hambleton had founded the Phoenix Repertory Company three years earlier. They were preparing a production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, starring acclaimed Irish actress Siobhan McKenna.

The theater was at Second Avenue and 12th Street. Before John could say anything, he was told to sit down and wait. The order came from one of the stage managers, Stark Hesseltine (who would become a major agent, credited with discovering Robert Redford and Christopher Reeve, among others). They were casting extras, and wanted people over six-foot-three. John wasn't. The four "short guys" were taken in last, and John placed his letter on the desk. Mr. Houghton politely dismissed the others but asked John to stay. Putting on his jacket he asked John, "Which way are you going?"

"Well, which way are you going?"

In the cab uptown, Mr. Houghton looked at John's photos and they talked. Soon, John had an idea. "Hey listen, I know that you're not interested. I know that you've already cast the show. I know that I'm not six-foot-three. But, I've been working in my Dad's office. I'm sitting around in New York not doing hardly anything. You're in your subscription season, as I could see sitting in the office. I could certainly help filing stuff, or even doing a little typing if you need an extra hand. It…would be interesting for me and may be helpful for you."

The offer was accepted, and John was waiting when the box office opened the next morning. "My typing wasn't any better then than it is now, which is terrible, but I would do things, and I got to know everybody in the office. They called me "Tennessee" because of my accent. I'd be the last person to leave, and then I'd be the first person there in the morning."

"Well, after four days, Norris Houghton – and he was surprised to see me everyday – he said, 'well, maybe we can use you,' and he put me in as an extra in Saint Joan. I played one of the priests and [as a soldier] carried a spear… We were paid $16 a week." He soon found a room nearby (a tiny 5' by 8' sliver of a room with just a cot and a sink) for $5 a week.

John Cullum hadn't been in New York two weeks, and already had his first acting job. It was off-Broadway, but in a large production that had already played Cambridge, Mass. and Philadelphia. The distinguished company included Kent Smith, Ian Keith, Thayer David, Earl Hyman, Michael Wager, Ian Keith, Frederick Tozere, Earl Montgomery and Dennis Patrick. Peter Falk made his NY debut in a small role. Robert Ludlum, who would become a best-selling author, was among the numerous non-speaking performers. Albert Marre directed. (A decade later, Marre would direct the original production of Man of La Mancha, and hire John as Richard Kiley's last alternate and first replacement.)

Although producer Roger L. Stevens (future director of the Kennedy Center) would step in and take Saint Joan to Broadway that winter, the show had only been scheduled for six weeks at the Phoenix. Soon it was time to think about the next job. The guys in the box office were auditioning for The Shakespearewrights' new production of Hamlet, and began pushing "Tennessee" to audition. He'd never performed Shakespeare, and with his heavy East Tennessee accent, just the thought of him auditioning must have seemed very funny to them.

John had bought "a dollar copy of Shakespeare" at The Strand bookstore, and memorized Hamlet's "Alas poor Yorick" speech, but after a long wait for the audition in the basement of St. Ignatius Church, and a distracting conversation with the beautiful, young actress playing Ophelia, he'd forgotten it all. Three times he started the speech, and three times he stopped. The stage manager was losing patience.

"Finally I said, 'Look, I'd rather just read the Laertes, because I know you've already cast the Hamlet.' … so I read the Laertes as fast as I could, and the stage manager said 'Thank you,' and he started dragging me out…but the director [Mitchell Jason] said, 'Wait a minute, I want to try something.' So he had me read the Rosencrantz and the Guildenstern…It was cold reading, but I…could read Shakespeare very easily based on my experience reading the King James Version of the Bible, which was translated around the same time" that Shakespeare was writing his plays.

When John was growing up, his father had read to the family from the King James Version every night. His brother, brother-in-law and nephew all became Baptist ministers.

And, when John read Shakespeare aloud, his accent almost vanished.

"So, I just read that thing through like water off a duck's back, and then walked out and thought, 'well that's the end of that.'"

The next day, he got a call at the Phoenix box office, where he was still working. Afterwards, "I went to the other room, sat at my typewriter fussing around, and after awhile I said out loud, 'You know, these people called me from The Shakespearewrights and they wanted me to do the Rosencrantz doubled with the Marcellus. But they're such small roles, I just wondered if I should do it.'" Unsaid was the fact that back home he had been playing leading roles for years.

"There was this long, quiet pause for a minute, and then this guy got up, grabbed me by the ear…and said, "You call them back right now and tell them you'll do it!" So that was my first speaking role, the first time that I auditioned for Hamlet – for Shakespeare -- ever."

It had been less than six weeks since John Cullum's arrival in New York, and he'd already landed his first two shows and his first speaking role. He rehearsed Hamlet until the last week before the opening, but a family crisis forced his return to Knoxville. His mother had been killed in a car accident, and he wanted to be with his family and help his Dad. He came back to New York in March, this time putting to use what he'd learned during his first months in the city. He earned a reputation as a Shakespearean actor (even performing a full summer season with Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park), and as a quick study.

It's now part of theatre lore that an assistant to lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, looking for an understudy for Richard Burton in the new musical Camelot, saw John in a Shakespeare play and asked him to audition. John made his Broadway debut in that fabled 1960 production, playing Sir Dinadan and understudying Burton's King Author and Roddy McDowell's Mordred (covering father and son). John went on four times for Burton and succeeded McDowell.

During Camelot, Lerner referred John to vocal coach Seymour Osborne, and John studied with him for many years. In 1965, John was called in to replace Louis Jourdan during the Boston tryout for Lerner and Burton Lane's On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. He only had one week's rehearsal before stepping onstage opposite Barbara Harris, but when they reached Broadway he would earn a Tony nomination and a Theatre World Award for his performance. The show's original cast recording received a Grammy Award (presented to Lerner and Lane), and the title song, which John introduced in the show, became a popular selection for many artists.

He'd gone from off-Broadway extra in Saint Joan, to Broadway leading man in On A Clear Day, in less than a decade, moving easily between dramas and comedies, straight plays and musicals, new shows and classics.

Modern dancer Emily Frankel had seen John in Saint Joan, though they wouldn't meet until the next summer while working on a show out of town. Several years later they were married, and are still together. Their son, JD Cullum, is an actor and writer based in Los Angeles.

Which brings to mind a real-life holiday story, told by father and son.

"JD was in intensive care during Christmas after an operation at age 2 at Saint Vincent's Hospital and I bought [a] suit to play Santa for him and the other kids. Although I was…more nervous about it than a Broadway opening, I continued to do it for quite a few years. Hence the fact that JD at age 5 discovered Santa Claus in our hall."

JD recalls, "I remember seeing this large nose protruding from above the white beard and below the red cap. I thought, 'Wow, Santa has an awfully prominent nose...There's something familiar about that nose...'"

JD didn't say anything at first. Then, he looked down at Santa's feet and asked, "Why are you wearing my Daddy's shoes?"

That gig was up. But, John Cullum would continue working other acting gigs for decades to come, delighting fans of all ages. This holiday season in Grinch, he'll be entertaining some of his youngest audiences yet.

And perhaps one those young fans will also know, "I'm a lazy little doggie and my name is Tot…"

***

Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas! The Musical is now in previews, and opens November 8 at the Hilton Theatre in Times Square. Limited engagement until January 7, 2007. Official website: www.grinchmusical.com

For more information on John Cullum's career, visit www.aboutJohnCullum.com.

JD Cullum is currently starring in Elephant Sighs, through December 3 at Third Stage in Burbank. www.thirdstage.org

(1) John Cullum as Old Max, with Patrick Page as The Grinch, and Rusty Ross as Young Max in Grinch; 2) 1957 headshot; (3) as Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah; (4) the producers' ad saluting his long run in Urinetown;and (5) as Old Max in Grinch (all Grinch photos by Paul Kolnik).


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