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A Memphis Classic

At 82, Barry Fuller revives the role of Scrooge in Theatre Memphis’ “A Christmas Carol.”

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"Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve."

– Belle to young Scrooge in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"

It's Sunday night, less than a week before A Christmas Carol is scheduled to open, and rehearsal for Theatre Memphis' lavishly reimagined production of the Dickens classic is going almost too well. Actors, some dressed in detailed period costumes, others still wearing their everyday clothes, hit their marks and deliver lines like it was opening night. The floating, wailing ghost of Jacob Marley, shackled with weightless chains, concludes his scene with a spooky flourish, then flies off like some over-the-top demon from one of  Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies.

That's when, as if on cue, things begin to fall apart. Scrooge's famous traveling bed — the only set element to survive Theatre Memphis' spectacular scenic overhaul — begins to glide magically about, carrying the trembling old miser toward his prescribed destiny. But then it comes skidding to a premature stop. There's a moment of confusion, then everyone sees that the bed — part set piece, part puppet with a highly developed personality — is broken.

"We should move on," says Jason Spitzer, Carol's stentorian director. Rehearsal is where things are supposed to go wrong, and there's a lot of ground to cover in the days to come.

Needless to say, when the curtain finally goes up, everything in this revamped Carol has to be exactly right.

 

"'I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,' said the Spirit. 'Look upon me!'"

Barry Fuller, the 82-year-old star of Theatre Memphis' 33rd production of A Christmas Carol, seems unfazed by the momentary setback and scurries nimbly out of the way. Fuller's chronological age seems at odds with his stage presence. He was Theatre Memphis' first Scrooge in 1978, and his resume reads like a condensed history of Memphis theater, beginning in the 1950s, when the basement of the old King Cotton Hotel downtown was converted into a spunky playhouse called Theatre 12.

But even so, when the ghost of Christmas Past — an energetic pre-teen — scampers about Theatre Memphis' stage, chasing a ball of pure light, Fuller has no trouble keeping pace. Over the years, he's played the part 10 times, and it takes a lot to throw the scruffy-bearded master off his game.

"They needed a star for this show," says Bill Short, the set dresser and designer who worked backstage on Theatre Memphis' first production of Carol. "With Barry, they've got that covered."

 As stage hands scramble to tend to the damaged bed, Short slips quietly out of the auditorium. Outside, in artist Lon Anthony's sculpture garden, Short, the coordinator of public services for the Barret Library at Rhodes College, recounts the time he helped designer Jay Ehrlicher paint scenery for the original Carol set. He says he understands why audiences want the cherished holiday show to always be the way it was when they first saw it. "But it really had run its course," Short says.

 "We've been trying to budget the time for a redesign for a few years," says Kell Christie, Theatre Memphis' artistic director. "The Victorian shops that everyone remembers were breaking apart and getting harder to move."

"The previous set pieces were very old and literally falling apart," adds Debbie Litch," Theatre Memphis' executive producer. Now everything has been replaced by a versatile, digitally printed set by Theatre Memphis' resident designer, Christopher McCollum. It's built to last another 33 years.

Christie thinks the change audiences resist most is a departure from the spirit of the original. In that regard, she thinks this new production, with Fuller as the centerpiece, is completely faithful.

Director Jason Spitzer has some personal history with A Christmas Carol, having played a variety of character roles over the years before taking over the helm in 2008. "When the show was overhauled — disastrously — in 2003 and the mandate for 2004 was to restore it to the way it had been, most of the people who knew what it used to be like had gone the way of the dodo," he explains. "So for a while, even though the audience was getting the same sets and costumes, they weren't really getting the same experience.

"Last year, when Barry indicated that he might like to return to the role of Scrooge, Debbie began to believe that 2010 was the year for the redesign," Spitzer adds. He calls Fuller Memphis' best-loved Scrooge. "Quite honestly, had he not indicated an interest in returning to the part, I'm not sure the redesign would have gone forward this season."

 

"'Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,' said Scrooge."

Fuller says he's never been the sort of person to ask, "What if?" But he has begun to think about his legacy and recently handed over most of his photographs, notes, and newspaper clippings to Short, to be digitized and archived in the Rhodes College library. The walls of his modest Midtown apartment are decorated with posters for important regional productions of plays and musicals he's been connected with.

Fuller says he has a special connection to Rhodes, having directed or appeared in 26 shows there since 1982, including ambitious regional premieres of Candide and Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. In November, he visited the campus to deliver an opening toast at a reunion party for the cast of Nicholas Nickleby, the eight-hour adaptation of another Dickens novel, which Fuller directed at the school's McCoy Theatre in 1985.

Fuller says he never batted an eye when Tony Garner, the chair of Rhodes' theater and music departments, invited him to direct Nicholas Nickleby. He painstakingly worked out much of the intricate movement in advance, using a scale model and poker chips coded to represent the show's many characters. His toast, which brought forth more than a few nostalgic tears, recalled the opening moments of "Nick Nick's" first public performance: As planned, the actors milled through the theater, casually conversing with audience members for about 10 minutes before curtain. Then, on cue, the cast moved into the show's opening tableau, bringing a cheering audience to its feet before the first word was ever spoken.

"We were moved then, and we were all moved when Barry reminded us," says Nicholas Nickleby cast member Gail Black. Fuller describes that pre-show ovation among his fondest memories. Jerry Chipman and Bennett Wood, two of Fuller's oldest friends, agree.

"It remains unmatched," Chipman says, expressing amazement at Fuller's unshakable optimism throughout a nearly year-long rehearsal process. Wood, a retired advertising executive, and Chipman, St. Jude's vice president of public relations, both performed in Nicholas Nickelby and worked as Fuller's assistant directors. They hang much of the show's success on their old friend's optimism and energy.

Fuller came a long way to become Memphis' best-loved Scrooge. He was born in Wagga Wagga, an agricultural transportation hub in New South Wales, Australia. His earliest theatrical memories are of playing "the old prophets" in church and school productions. "I always had a stick, a fake beard, and a piece of rope tied around my head," he recalls. "I've always played the character roles, and for that I'm eternally thankful. I've almost never played the romantic leads."

In 1952, Fuller boarded a boat and began a serpentine voyage across the globe.

"I was coming over to go to drama school," Fuller says. The Second World War had been over for only seven years, and a little money went a long way in Europe. So Fuller decided to take an indirect path to Iowa State University. He ocean-hopped from Sidney to Perth, then set out across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka, where he was surprised to find a number of British battleships in the harbor. He was even more surprised when they started firing their guns.

"There must have been 50 million pigeons that lifted off of the city like a cloud," Fuller says. The shots, he later discovered, were a salute to Princess Elizabeth, who had been scheduled to visit the following day.

Today, Fuller, a retired travel agent, describes Rio de Janeiro as his favorite city, and he can spin vivid stories about Hong Kong. But this was his first adventure abroad, and he managed to squeeze in side trips to Rome, Naples, Switzerland, and Paris, before he finally booked passage on the Queen Mary and crossed the Atlantic to New York, where he initially mistook the blinking red light of a storm buoy for the Statue of Liberty.

"It was hard to see," he explains.

 

When Fuller finally arrived at Iowa State, he met and became roommates with George Touliatos, the charismatic actor, director, and producer who founded Memphis' Front St. Theatre in 1957. When he wasn't in school, Fuller spent time in New York, where he worked as a printer for The New York Times. He had the midnight shift, which made it easy for him to catch original productions of The King and I, Guys & Dolls, and other musical hits from Broadway's golden age.

In 1956, Touliatos invited Fuller to Memphis to play the uptight fool Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night for Theatre 12. In 1958, he moved to Memphis to join the Front St. players.

"I think the world of George," Fuller says. "He could be an exasperating director and an exasperating man, but he is responsible, in my opinion, for what's going on in Memphis theater today." Fuller points to a photograph of a young Jackie Nichols performing in Damn Yankees. "Jackie built his theater along the same lines [as George], and now we have all these theaters, like the Harrell in Collierville and the Hattiloo downtown. All of it started with Front St."

While working at Front St., Fuller performed alongside well-known actors such as Paxton Whitehead, Dixie Carter, and Dana Ivey. He played Estragon to Tony-winner George Hearn's Vladimir in an early Memphis production of Waiting for Godot.

"It was grand for the 30 people who saw it," Fuller recalls. "This was 1960. Nobody in Memphis knew Godot.

"George had a vision. He wanted to do the classics. It used to tick him off that he had to do musicals to make money. But nobody else was doing them. They weren't being done at the Little Theatre — the precursor to Theatre Memphis — and at the time, that's all there was. There was the Little Theatre, and there was Front St.

"Back then, we did everything. We did A Lady's Night in a Turkish Bath. Lots of men and women running around in white towels. That was fun. Oh God, it was awful. But the title alone had people in that theater who had never been in a theater before."

Today, Fuller is known as a skilled song-and-dance man. He's been featured in Ballet Memphis' Nutcracker and sung alongside Beverly Sills. He's already booked to appear in Crazy for You and Cabaret in 2011. But other than having a go at Og the Leprechaun in a college production of Finian's Rainbow, Fuller hadn't done any musicals until he came to Memphis.

Still, every stage actor has Broadway dreams, and Fuller spent some time auditioning in New York and Washington, D.C., without much success. "I had a very thick Australian accent," he explains. American plays were in vogue, and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams weren't writing dramas for actors from down under.

The Front St. Theatre was heavily in debt when Touliatos abandoned the project in 1967. Although the company limped along for a few more seasons, it was never the same.

 Fuller eventually returned to Memphis and went to work for American Airlines. He says he enjoyed working in the travel industry and didn't have to miss life in the theater for long, because shortly after Touliatos left town, Nichols started assembling the pieces that would eventually grow into Playhouse on the Square.

"I wasn't at all happy with the first plays I directed, because I didn't have the skills or the know-how," Fuller says. He developed his skills at Circuit Playhouse and Playhouse on the Square, where he became a frequent director, from mainstream musicals to Marat/Sade.

 Fuller hasn't slowed down much. In recent years, he's taken on memorable supporting roles in Night of the Iguana, Much Ado About Nothing, and Cats.

"This is a man who goes to the gym six mornings a week," Jerry Chipman says. "Barry said when he retired that he didn't want to sit around watching DVDs. And so he's done one show after another. He said, 'When they roll the credits, I don't want to be sitting here reading a book. I want them to take me feet first out the stage door.'"

"I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world!"

 

The material may not be fresh, but Fuller continues to discover new things about old Ebenezer Scrooge. Scenes play out differently, now that he and the old skinflint who hates Christmas are closer to the same age.

"Scrooge has the line 'I am too old and beyond hope,'" Fuller says, a hint of somberness creeping into his voice. "Well, I'm not beyond hope, and at this point, I'm not too old, but somehow I relate to that. I don't know how long I can keep this up. I'm 82 now. I already know I have work at 83. But what about 84 and 85? Or 86 and 87?

"I'm not afraid of it," Fuller says, looking calmly into the near future. "Far from it. I embrace it all. I am an optimistic person. I don't look back. I only look forward."

And at this moment, Barry Fuller is looking forward to opening night, which — as one might imagine — he knows will be a smashing success.

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