It's been a long, strange trip from Griswold's Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre in Montclair to the Great White Way in Manhattan. But after 12 years of singing and hoofing his heart out on suburban stages across Southern California, Eric Gunhus has landed a spot on Broadway's hottest ticket.
Eight times a week, the Cal State Fullerton grad slips backstage at the St. James Theatre, dons a black Nazi storm trooper's uniform and belts out the opening solo in "Springtime for Hitler," the loony signature tune from Mel Brooks' show-biz satire, "The Producers."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 19, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Angeles theater--A story in the Aug. 12 Sunday Calendar incorrectly identified the location of the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre. It is in Claremont.
After sweeping this year's Tony Awards, "The Producers" looks set for a long, lucrative New York run followed by a long, even more lucrative national road tour. That's good news for Gunhus, a well-spoken, Malibu-blond 31-year-old who's living proof that it's possible for an actor to hitch his or her star to L.A. theater and ride it to bigger and, perhaps, better things.
"I think for pretty much everybody who is working in the L.A. theater scene, if you do put in the commitment, the rewards are there," says Gunhus, who once earned his keep as a singing-dancing cowboy in Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe revue.
In the hall-of-mirrors world that sometimes is Los Angeles theater, success for an actor can be an elusive commodity. Pay is low, if there's any pay at all. Competition can be surprisingly fierce. And the city's sprawling, polyglot theater scene, while arguably the nation's most diverse and prolific, hasn't attained the same recognition as New York's or Chicago's.
Then there's the siren song of Hollywood, whispering of multiyear sitcom contracts and ocean-view mansions.
No wonder many L.A. actors view local theater from dueling perspectives. Some see it purely as a means to an end, others as an end in itself. Some regard it as a showcase for shopping a resume to studio talent scouts. Others insist that L.A. theater must strive to maintain an identity separate from the all-powerful industry monolith.
But despite L.A. theater's ambiguous stature, a number of successful L.A. actors credit local stage work with helping to shape--and reshape--their careers. Some, such as Gunhus, have ended up on Broadway. Others, such as Bradley Whitford ("The West Wing"), have broken through into TV and film. A few, such as Julia Sweeney of "Saturday Night Live," have used L.A. theater as a training ground. Still others return to it now and then to maintain a connection with their roots.
"There's something very sound about theater as a way of getting experience and getting some time on the clock," says French Stewart, who already was well-known to L.A. theater audiences from his over-the-top antics in Justin Tanner plays at the Cast Theatre before his breakout role in NBC's "3rd Rock From the Sun."
"Working in television, you really, to a certain degree, have your hands tied," Stewart says. "You're on a schedule and every episode is costing several million dollars to produce. At the Cast, you were able to get a month of rehearsal, and however an evening was going to happen, it was going to happen. I think that's still the thing I enjoy most. My feeling is, if you can do a Tanner play, you can do anything."
For Whitford, who has appeared in productions at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood, the training and experience from performing on the stage have been invaluable. "I know that if I had not spent years doing theater as an actor, I would feel I had no skeleton," he says. "When I meet young actors, I tell them I think it's the only way to learn how to act."
Amy Brenneman, star of CBS' single-mom drama "Judging Amy," says that many of that show's principal cast members, including Tyne Daly and Dan Futterman, share a theater background that lets them gel as an ensemble. Their theatrical instincts, Brenneman says, are evident in "the work ethic, the lack of diva energy, the gratitude for the opportunity to say good words."
"It's a very simpatico group in that way. There's a real sense of the collaborative art form," says Brenneman, a founding member of the grass-roots-oriented, L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company.
Stewart says that the same held true for the "3rd Rock" cast, some of whose members have performed on Broadway. Besides the technical experience he got from doing shows like "Zombie Attack," Stewart says, working at the Cast helped him gain notice in Hollywood. The theater is close to Paramount Pictures, and several industry players and "slumming actors" regularly show up.
L.A. theater also allowed him to profit from early mistakes with minimal pain, Stewart says, whereas TV and film catch every flub for eternity. "There's plenty of plays I went out and [was terrible] in, but it doesn't matter. So years later I can go out and tell people I was fabulous! It's a matter of going out there and hitting the boards and doing the part."