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BWW Interview: Eric Michael Gillett of COLORS OF CHRISTMAS The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday Gala

One of the season's most cherished shows and traditions will, indeed, proceed this year.

BWW Interview: Eric Michael Gillett of COLORS OF CHRISTMAS The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday GalaA character in a well-loved Christmas story says that he thinks of Christmas as a "good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time" and that is, surely, true of many people. Eric Michael Gillett does not need the holiday season to embrace, to live in that Dickensian description, for it is his natural state to be a pleasant man of kindness who is forgiving and, certainly, charitable. Throughout the years and during each year Mr. Gillett focuses intently to raising awareness of and raising funds for BENJAMIN HOUSE, a North Carolina residence that helps "the mentally challenged with life", a sentence taken directly from their website. Eric Michael's devotion to the organization has led him to create nine holiday gala productions to honor the work that they do and the people they serve, and with productions in Manhattan and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Gillett has done Benjamin House a world of good.

Eric Michael Gillett wasn't about to let the gala slip through the cracks during a year when so many are in need, so he took to the internet and planned a virtual show with some of the luminaries who have supported Benjamin House in the past. Come December 20th, anyone can tune in to see Gillett & co. in their free concert, learn more about Benjamin House, and give in any way that they can. It is, after all, the season of giving.

Right?

Having been a big fan of the 2019 production that played Manhattan's Laurie Beechman Theatre, I reached out to Mr. Gillett to learn about Benjamin House and the galas, both past and present.

This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced with minimal edits.

Eric Michael Gillett welcome to Broadway World and thank you so much for chatting with us today. You have, quite literally, done just about everything during your life in the business of show. What was your first love as a performer, the passion that brought you into the industry?

I came to the industry by chance, if I'm completely honest. My plan was to be a teacher and acting/performing was just something I did on the side. Around 1970, I met my voice teacher and she changed my life. She believed in me where no one else did and she filled me with so much joy in the act of performing that I changed directions and never looked back. It's strange to be where I am now and to still have a vital career, yet find myself right where I planned to be originally, teaching and influencing young artists as they chase their dreams. BTW: The show that changed my life was Hallelujah Hollywood at the old MGM Grand in Las Vegas. I drove up on a dare on Aug, 25th, auditioned that afternoon, and was cast before nightfall. I ate dinner with a friend and started back to LA. At midnight, as I crossed over Stateline into California, it hit me that I got the job (a real Chorus Line moment before there was A Chorus Line) and I pulled over and called my folks from a pay phone. As we spoke, I realized it had just turned midnight and it was my birthday. The universe gave me the best present ever that year.

Your passion during the month of December is your annual benefit show for BENJAMIN HOUSE. How long has this tradition existed?

BWW Interview: Eric Michael Gillett of COLORS OF CHRISTMAS The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday GalaI've been friends with the Hughes family ever since Ann Park Hughes brought her son, Benjamin, to the circus back during my first tour. I was given the opportunity to become a part of Ben's extended family and was around to see Benjamin House grow from a simple idea on the part of his parents into a full-blown reality. It was not too long after that the idea to hold an annual gala/benefit in Elizabeth City honoring Benjamin House came to me and I proposed it to both Ann and Ben's father, Lennie Hughes. In my head, it wouldn't be so much about raising money (though that's pretty nice, too) but, rather, awareness. It became an opportunity to remind folks of the good work BH does not just with their residents but also with their outreach programs in the community. Over the years, we've coupled the Elizabeth City event with a benefit in New York at the Laurie Beechman Theater. Cabaret and Broadway names have volunteered to perform in the NYC event and I then take a smaller group, usually between 7-9 artists, down to EC for our in-person show. If I'm counting correctly, this would have been our ninth consecutive year in person but, things being what they are, I'm thrilled we're able to do something in a virtual setting.

BWW Interview: Eric Michael Gillett of COLORS OF CHRISTMAS The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday Gala

You discuss your friendship with Ben in the show - I'd love for our readers to know more about you and Ben and your story.

I think anyone who knows me already knows that I met Benjamin after a morning performance of the circus, back when I was ringmaster for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey. His mother told me that his dream was to be a ringmaster one day, even though he had communication/speech and language difficulties. I had been told by so many people that I would never make a living as a singer, yet here I was, a featured artist in one of the biggest live entertainment enterprises in the world. I felt I owed him the same encouragement I had received. I told Ben and his mother to write, which they did and, over the years, I had him appear as a guest clown, presented him with a guest ringmaster certificate and whistle in front of a full audience at one of our Virginia venues, and eventually invited Ben and his mom to travel between cities on the circus train. That cemented the deal. It took me a while to be able to fully understand Ben when speaking, but we never, from the very start, had any difficulty in communicating what is in our hearts. Almost 35 years have passed, and he's still the same loving and affectionate person I met at that very first circus performance. And through him, I have an entire extended family of friends in the residents at Benjamin House.

BWW Interview: Eric Michael Gillett of COLORS OF CHRISTMAS The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday Gala

Each year, you are able to secure the participation of some pretty impressive talents. How do you make that happen?

LOL! I guess the short answer is that I ask. I was brought up to believe that, if you don't ask, the answer is always 'no.' And, if the worst thing that happens is that someone turns me down, I just wait for another year and another opportunity. We've been fortunate enough to have Jarrod Spector, Kelli Barrett, Sidney Myer, Marta Sanders. Karen Akers, KT Sullivan, Melanie Vaughan, Jay Rogers and so many others give of themselves. And though our traveling company changes from year to year, we've had certain performers who simply don't like to miss a year, among them octogenarian Cookie Stark and current BWW Cabaret Show nominee Robin Westle. The one consistent thing I take away at the end of every one of these events is how affected all the performers are by the experience and by getting to know Ben, his family, and all the other wonderful residents at Benjamin House.

BWW Interview: Eric Michael Gillett of COLORS OF CHRISTMAS The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday Gala

After the Manhattan show each year, how do you afford to transport all the talent out of town and house them?

As I mentioned above, we take a smaller group down to Elizabeth City for our in person gala, which is usually held at the Museum of the Albemarle. Every year, Ann approaches supporters of Benjamin House to enlist their assistance in funding the show. Thanks to their generosity and support, we are able to house, travel and feed all the artists, pay for rehearsals and arrangements/musical direction, and provide an honorarium.

As would be expected, this year THE COLORS OF CHRISTMAS show will be happening online. Put a picture in my head of what that will look like.

The show is different every year but this one is a real departure. One of our guests is an amazing illusionist named Elliot Zimet. Elliot, like so many of us in this crazy new environment, has had to go online this year. We feature him in a sequence showing how he performs magic in a virtual environment and he delivers like gangbusters. I myself taped several new segments for the show and we've gone archival for material that was never performed at the galas in North Carolina. We have "all the feels" as they say nowadays, and some spectacular guest artists appearing in support of the organization. Karen Akers, KT Sullivan, Melanie Vaughan, Sidney Myer..the list goes on and on. I've seen a final draft of the gala and I have to say it exceeds my wildest expectations for what we set out to do. And God bless Jason Ellis for his spectacular post-production work.

The online show will be free, but this is always a benefit for Benjamin House. Help Broadway World to encourage people to support the organization through their donations, while enjoying this gratis special event.

From the very first benefit at Benjamin House, I've felt that awareness was the most important by-product of our work in support of the organization. If people visit benjaminhouse.org and read more about their mission, get to know about the work they do and, more importantly, the impact that work has on real lives in real time, that's a huge accomplishment. In learning more, I've found that a great number of people have chosen to support Benjamin House in ways big and small, locally by volunteering and donations of needed goods, etc, and in the greater community, through financial support. Donating is easy and is fully tax-deductible. If people RSVP to our invitation this year by accessing this link: tinyurl.com/benjaminhousegala2020 they can view the event starting Sunday, Dec. 20th at 2 PM (ET)/11 AM (PT) and, we hope, be both entertained and enlightened. Unable to watch the initial stream? No worries, as it will remain online through January 1, 2021.

benjaminhouse.org (for more information about Benjamin House)

tinyurl.com/benjaminhousegala2020 (to RSVP and receive a link for the event)

BWW Interview: Eric Michael Gillett of COLORS OF CHRISTMAS The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday Gala

Has Benjamin House suffered greatly during this difficult year? Are there other non-financial ways that people might help out?

Resilience and adaptability is a key quality of everyone associated with Benjamin House. There are strict protocols in place during the pandemic in order to protect the health and lives of all residents and support personnel. I think the hardest thing for the residents is the inability to have regular visits and the hugs and personal contact that is so much a part of their lifestyle have had to be curtailed (and here are the most overused words of 2020) out of an abundance of caution. But the local community gathers together for drive-by Sunday services, the staff invents plenty of new activities to keep all of the residents filled with purpose and optimism, and we all have high hopes that Benjamin House will emerge from this better and stronger. Because I know all of the residents personally, I try to make sure I send or bring Christmas presents and, when I can, I send the occasional package of books or CDs and DVDs down to fill out their library. I can tell you that Ann Hughes is extremely responsive. If anyone reaches out to her via benjaminhouse.org to ask how they can pitch in, she will definitely be in touch. Like me, she believes that not asking gets you nothing. I think that's what I admire most about her.

BWW Interview: Eric Michael Gillett of COLORS OF CHRISTMAS The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday Gala

Eric, you are a highly respected teacher. From where do you get the sense of altruism that leads you to such selfless acts as teaching and supporting Benjamin House?

I wouldn't characterize the things that I do as coming from a place of altruism. I just feel that we all need support and affection. Teaching enriches me because I get to share a gift that was given to me and Benjamin House is a cause dear to my heart because I'm so connected to Ben and his family's dream of providing a permanent home for so many besides him. Trust me, I get anything I put into these two areas of my life back in spades. There is nothing as satisfying as seeing a student book their first Broadway show or watching an artist who spent a lifetime in another field, professional or domestic, suddenly blossom on stage as both an actor and a singer. And the same applies to Benjamin House. When Bart gets up to sing, or Jason dances, or Kos does a stand-up routine, all things they do in the talent show every summer under the direction of Wanda K. Jones Wilson, it fills me with such pride and joy to know I get the honor of being a small part of their journey.

In your experience, what are the most valuable ways that a person in a teaching position can affect the learning trajectory of their mentees?

I will be forever grateful to my late voice teacher, Jan Ritschel. She gave me my voice when others told me I would never be considered a singer. She taught me the basics of teaching, too. Her strongest belief was that the teacher's job is to hold the student accountable for reaching the highest level of their own personal ability, and that support and encouragement were the most vital tools a teacher has in creating an environment in which the student can both learn and apply the tools of their training outside of the teaching environment. What's the old saying: "Give a man a fish, he eats for a week. Teach a man to fish, he eats for life."

You are widely regarded as a source of brightness within the cabaret and club community - what do you consider your center of strength and optimism?

Well, that's the last question I would have expected in this interview. Frankly, it had me thoroughly at a loss, so I saved it for last. Before the pandemic, I would have said that my strength and my optimism sprang from the deep bond I share with my sisters. Being alone all of these months, however, I've had the chance to reevaluate. My mom always said that 'being alone is not necessarily being lonely.' I believe that. I'm depressed some days, sometimes deeply, but I find that, along the way, I was either given, or taught, the lessons of resilience, of putting one foot down and then the other. I'm optimistic because, deep down inside, I WANT to believe in the basic goodness of people and the universe, even when that belief is sorely tested. I'm strong because I've learned to forgive my flaws even as I apologize for them and try to learn from my mistakes. Living fully requires risk and pain and heartache but, at the end of the day, you do what you do and pray the good outweighs the bad in your 'permanent record.' Or I could just borrow from my friend Gretchen Reinhagen and say, "I blame paleo."

Eric Michael Gillett what is your favorite Christmas memory?

There are two, actually. One is fraught with terror and the other beloved to this day. For the former, I was in a Las Vegas production called Hallelujah Hollywood. Two days before Christmas, I was informed that, on Christmas Day, I would be going on as 'The Boy Next Door' in the Meet Me in St Louis section of the show. Apparently the regular artist was on vacation, the 1st understudy had the flu, and the 2nd and 3rd covers would be on for other actors on Christmas Day. That left me. I can still remember driving all the way back to Las Vegas on Christmas Day belting my section of the song over and over again the entire 278 miles from Los Angeles to the Strip. It was my first night singing live to 2000 people and a memory I've never forgotten, not least because, in giving a successful performance, the doors opened to a huge number of performing opportunities in that show and beyond.

BWW Interview: Eric Michael Gillett of COLORS OF CHRISTMAS The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday Gala

My beloved memory is Christmas Eve when I was about 11. I was an inveterate reader and, whenever you couldn't find me at supper, you could usually find me somewhere between home and the library with a stack of books beside me, sitting under a street lamp, reading whatever my newest treasure might be. On that particular night, I discovered Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," which is, for now and always, an annual part of my holiday experience.

Thank you so much for sharing yourself and your love of Benjamin House with all of us. I can't wait to see THE COLORS OF CHRISTMAS on the 20th. Happiest of holidays.

Please see the COLORS OF CHRISTMAS press release with all details and links below:

"Colors of Christmas"

The 2020 Benjamin House Holiday Gala

Streaming begins Sunday, December 20th

"Colors of Christmas," the Benjamin House 2020 Holiday Gala will premiere online at 2PM (ET)/11AM (PT) Sunday, December 20th. For almost a decade celebrity guests from New York City have traveled to Elizabeth City, NC to honor Benjamin House, whose mission is, as it has always been, "Helping the mentally challenged with life." Due to pandemic conditions this holiday season, the gala has moved online as a free private event, with special appearances by Broadway's Karen Akers (Nine, Grand Hotel), KT Sullivan (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and Marta Sanders (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), cabaret icon Sidney Myer, and a special guest performance by Master Illusionist Elliot Zimet (The Illusionists: International Tour, America's Got Talent, Penn & Teller's FOOL US!, The Early Show). Hosted by Broadway veteran and six-time Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs (MAC) Award winner Eric Michael Gillett, this season's gala features a host of talent gathering together both to celebrate and to spread the word about the great and inspiring work being done by the devoted staff and founders of Benjamin House.

This free private event can be accessed by RSVP'ing at the following link: https://tinyurl.com/benjaminhousegala2020

Once registered, you will receive a confirmation email, followed by an access code to be delivered via email on the morning of Sunday, December 20th. The show will then be available to stream through January 1, 2021. Make your holiday a little brighter and join us at this celebration honoring Benjamin House online!

To learn more about Benjamin House, the residence, along with the community outreach programs it supports, visit benjaminhouse.org


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