Eric Michael Gillett, the 27th ringmaster at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, swiveled on the arena floor to see a tiger had escaped from the cage. As it came towards the seats, he instinctively opened his arms wide, palms flat “so the tiger would go in the opposite direction.” It was a tremendously dangerous situation. “The tiger doesn’t want to be out any more than you want him to be out,” he recalled offhandedly. Eric Michael had fronted rock bands, acted in theater and musicals around the country, traveled Guatemala with a revue, danced and sung at the MGM Grand (now the Bally’s Grand) in Las Vegas, and written and performed cabaret acts. It was a tiger. Show biz.
Unlike most committed thespians, Eric Michael had no youthful ambitions to go into the business. He and his mother, her sister and his cousin Steven, who was five years older, lived on Venice Beach in California from when he was five until he was seven. The “big thing” was collecting bottles. Eric Michael, who was cute, would troll the sand securing the promise of empty bottles. When Steven got there, he would be refused and asked whether he knew Eric. The younger boy became the front man, his cousin the manual labor. “I’d get a percentage. He ended up in banking and I ended up being sort of the charm guy.”
At seven, now in Culver City, Eric Michael would look out his window and see the original MGM billboard above the studio itself. He was crazy about the movies, especially horror films. “Even now, people don’t like to go to scary movies with me…There’s a scene in Jaws when these two fishermen throw in a pot roast to attract the shark…a man is pulled into the water with a piece of the dock…the guy is swimming madly towards shore followed by the shark and I hear: Down in front!! I had climbed onto the seat in an effort to get my own feet out of the water.” It never occurred to Eric to dream of film as his future.
Eric Michael’s mother, Virginia Taggart, had five daughters with his step-father. She was often pregnant. The family moved to Orange County for more space. He studied cello “I like the mournful sound, which is interesting because I’m not a mournful person,” until one day on a hill in a rainstorm, he slipped and ended up literally riding the instrument down. As a soprano in the school choir, he learned just enough to begin to read music. Music, then? Voice? No. Eric Michael planned to teach. In third grade, his teacher heard a lateral lisp and got him into speech therapy. “I sounded British for years, but didn’t develop the handicap that would’ve put me in a terrible position in school.” He had great admiration for teachers.
As it changed to tenor in high school, Eric Michael’s voice cracked. Having no idea what was going on, he stopped singing and became a competitive speaker. He loved Damn Yankees on Million Dollar Movie and The Music Man on the stage. Still, he would be a teacher. Senior year, the school was doing Oklahoma! One of three musicals his mother often played at home, Eric Michael was familiar with the piece. He knew Jud Fry didn’t really sing and thought it might be fun to try out. A snarky don’t-even-bother-trying comment from a classmate instead provoked him to audition for the part of Will Parker. He delivered “a dead-spot-on version of Gene Nelson singing from the soundtrack” and got the part. “I didn’t develop my own voice until I was in my twenties and working hard with voice teacher, Jan Ritschel. She’s the woman to whom I give all the credit for any career I have.” Eric still studies with Ritschel whenever he can.
At Cal State Fullerton, Eric Michael began to take theater courses. By then, he’d met enough bitter teachers to inadvertently change his path. Theater was fun. He could do it. He’d been fronting rock bands since he was 17, still singing in other voices—notably Denny Doherty of The Mamas and The Papas and John Lennon. A transfer to Cyprus College was aborted by getting work in a series of rock musicals. It was the era of Hair.
Ironically, his first paying job was a dinner theater production of Damn Yankees in Sacramento. The show went bankrupt half way through the run and the cast was locked out of their hotel rooms. Welcome to the profession. There was work on a cruise line, then a tour as a “Cole Porter Singers” in Guatemala.
When he returned, the only offer Eric Michael received was The Dr. Pepper Revue at The California State Fair. He decided if that was the best he could do, he didn’t want it. Still not considering himself an actor, he took temp jobs for six months unsure what he wanted to do next. The day before his 25th birthday, his friend and former performing partner, Ann Peck, called about auditions for Hallelujah Hollywood in Las Vegas. Eric Michael set his alarm for 4 a.m., woke up and had a panic attack. If I turn off the phone, he thought, no one will ever know and I can say I didn’t get it. He rolled over and turned off the light. “Forty-five minutes later, I sat straight up in bed and thought if I don’t go, I can never call myself an actor again.” His Eureka moment.
Director Donn Arden was brutal. “He’d line women up across the stage with their tits out, walk across and say, no, no, no, stay. With the boys, it was their butts.” And they had a height requirement, actually several depending on whether you were a dancing nude, a pony, a singer, a principal. “I was clueless.” The singer before Eric Michael was short. Arden ripped into him. It was nasty. Just like the moment in high school when his classmate got snarky, Eric Michael got angry, not scared, angry.
He sang four bars and stopped. “That’s it?!” snapped Arden. “What I sang has every note in the song. If I sing anymore you’ve already heard it,” retorted Eric Michael. “Do ya dance?” Arden asked, “do a turn! “I could do one kind of turn, which I did, four times.” “Do somethin’ else,” commanded Arden. “If you wanna see something else, show me something else,” Eric Michael answered. The response: “Siddown.” “I thought, well, that’s the end of that.” He got the job. Two years, twelve shows a week. He sang, danced and ended up covering for several leads. Being a Donn Arden boy in Las Vegas was tantamount to being a Ziegfeld Girl on Broadway. Eric Michael worked hard, learned discipline, and made friends.
Back in L.A., his friend, KT Sullivan, got him his first club job at an Italian restaurant, called La Strada. Eric Michael remembers standing with Sullivan as she called to suggest him for it. She listened, turned to Eric Michael and said, “Darling, you’re a baritone aren’t you?” “No, actually, “he answered, “I’m a tenor.” “Yes, he’s a baritone,” she said into the phone. “Darling, you have a tuxedo, don’t you?” she asked. “No, actually, I don’t have a tuxedo.” “Yes, he has one. I’ll tell him.” And then to Eric Michael, “You’re on tonight.”
After a time, he found himself back in Las Vegas doing Bal du Moulin Rouge, the American premiere of the show that actually played The Moulin Rouge in Paris. They built a million dollar sequence around him as a ringmaster. A ringmaster. One day he received a message: Do you want to see life imitate art? It was sent by Kevin Feld who, after something of a siege, convinced Eric Michael to become the actual ringmaster of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. He was 35. “I thought I’d do a year and it would be my Johnny Carson story.” He stayed 11 years. “It was a wonderful job and sort of a summation of everything I’d learned to do.” Each tour lasted 2 years, 6 days a week, with barely two weeks off between.
The first year was rough. Eric Michael played the part as he conceived it, learning only by experience. “There’s no greater family…Everybody’s into everybody’s business. You work very hard.” In 1997, the last year of Eric Michael’s tenure, his 67 year-old mother traveled with him, taking a job in the wardrobe department so as not to be idle. “She had her own friends and social life…every Sunday, a steak and a martini…I learned more about my mother that year…”
“I still wanted to do the original cast of a Broadway show. I wanted to paint on a larger canvas.” Eric Michael was 47 when he left the circus. (In 2010, he directed The Big Apple Circus; a kind of homecoming). Somehow, while he was working all over the country six days a week, he managed to put together cabaret acts, flying in and out of New York presenting one show a year. When he returned, he was not an unknown. He did a few nights at The Algonquin in a duo. Six months later he got the original Broadway revival cast of Kiss Me Kate followed by the original cast of Sweet Smell of Success. Off Broadway productions followed.
Then a new chapter began. He accepted a job directing Valerie Lemon as Jane Froman. Lemon had dreamt about Froman. Eric Michael was drawn to her passion. In the course of development, they replaced their musical director and hired Don Rebic…who introduced him to Karen Akers. “She’s a great actress and a marvelous interpreter.” Eric Michael has been collaborating with Akers as her director for six years now.
He also currently directs KT Sullivan, Karen Oberlin, Sheera Ben David, Jarrod Spector (the lead in Jersey Boys), Will and Anthony Nunziata, and a number of young performers and “new resumes”: people who have been singing for years but don’t have many opportunities to do an act. “I take on artists when they have something to get off their chest…It’s my job to find what swan they see in the block of ice and make sure they build the swan… the same with teaching.” Eric Michael teaches acting at HB Studio and voice at Singers Forum.
In 1995, Eric Michael created Cast of Thousands, the songs of Craig Carnelia (with Barry Kleinbort). He has a special affinity with Carnelia’s songs. “I’m sure it appears that I’m working, but I don’t have to work very hard with Craig’s songs because they’re me…they illuminate me.” Recently he has gone back to the piece and is reworking it. Several evening’s try-outs at Don’t Tell Mama’s drew cheers. It will, he hopes, eventually be his own personal Mark Twain Tonight.
What do you want to do that you haven’t done? “Wow. Take a vacation. And I don’t mean to be glib. I put so much of myself onstage because no one can get to me. No phone rings, no door buzzes. It’s just me and the audience. If I could have a year only doing the work or only directing…that’s my bucket list”
I, for one, doubt he’ll ever give up one or the other. This is a man who is loves the process, is dedicated to fostering talent, and is having a wonderful time.
Coming up: The lead in an Indie film called The Third Testament, written and directed by Matt Dallman; A part written for him in “US VS. THEM, by Wesley Broulik , the premiere production of Dark Luna Theater Company; The role of Father in The New York City Ballet’s Seven Deadly Sins (Weil and Brecht); His current, second show at Feinstein’s—Widescreen: Songs From & About the Movies, February 15-19. And March 12 at New Jersey’s Berlind Theater at the McCarter Theater Center. I’m sure that’s not all.
Still photos, from top:
1. Eric Michael Gillett as the ringmaster
2. La Cage, Montclair, NJ ‘98
3. In a production of Annie.
4. The “Cirque du Paris” number from Carnival at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey
5. With Karen Akers
For more information go to his website, www.ericmichaelgillett.com
Read Alix’s January 16, 2011 review of Cast of a Thousands, Gillett sings Carnelia, at Don’t Tell Mama.
To buy tickets for his show at Feinstein’s go to the website.