There are giants that walk among men, true princes. Though closer to five feet in actual height, Lou Criscuolo certainly stood head and shoulders above the rest. Actor, director, father, husband, partner, mentor, teacher—Lou was many things to many people. In the Port City, he was best known as the founder of Opera House Theatre Company in 1985. Over the weekend, on December 14, Opera House announced: “Lou Criscuolo made his final curtain speech just after 8 p.m. last evening.”
Earlier in the year, Lou began a valiant battle with cancer. Like many people, I thought he was immortal and invincible; though he proved to be human, I am really grateful he got to see the whole Opera House season of 2014. Over the summer, I had the pleasure of sitting down with him in one of his final interviews. It was the weekend before ”Kiss Me, Kate” opened; Lou was between rounds of treatment and he looked pretty good, even acted full of life and energy, while rocking the Yule Brenner look.
“I was brought in to do a play for Tony [Rivenbark], ‘Remembered Nights,’” he recalled of his arrival in Wilmington. It was for the 125th Anniversary of Thalian Hall Celebration. Lou was captivated by the beautiful, opulent mystique of Thalian. At that time, he was turning 50 and seemed to be at a crossroads in his life. He said he had accomplished everything he wanted to in New York and L.A.
“So I started Opera House Theatre Company, but I wasn’t here,” Lou remembered. “I was doing a play on Broadway, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’ I was commuting back and forth every week for about a year to get it straightened up.”
He raised his shoulders and gave his characteristic shrug.
“It was a hard struggle at the very beginning,” he continued. “Thalian Hall was not respected through the state of NC.”
That certainly changed over the last 30 years, and in no small part because of Lou. Opera House has produced great shows, not to mention procured notable talent: Pat Hingle, Henry Darrow, and in the very first show, “Cactus Flower,” Joe Namath, former NFL star.
“I was born in New York City, 1934,” Lou stated matter of factly. “I had great parents. My mother and father, they were immigrants from the old country, but it was fine. My father was a pushcart peddler; he sold fruit and vegetables. I used to help him.”
Produce was not Lou’s future. His imagination was captured by something else. “My mother used to take me to the Italian Theatre, on 125th street on Sundays,” he told. “They were all preforming in Italian.”
He grinned at the memory. “I always knew I wanted to be in the entertainment field. I wanted to be an actor, of course, but I didn’t know how to get there.”
Lou’s first acting job was playing Woody in “Finnian’s Rainbow” with Herschel Bernardi. “My first paying job was Pinocchio,” he added. “We did it during the Easter vacation over at the Martinique Theater—three performances a day for seven days. I made $80.”
Eventually, Lou got his big break when Robert Duvall caught him onstage and recommended him to the casting director of “Naked City.”
“That’s a helluva a break, Lou!” I exclaimed.
He grinned. “It was, and I wasn’t even aware of it—it was a job,” he responded. “I look at everything as a job. I did four episodes of ‘Naked City,’ three episodes of ‘Route 66,’ but I was still working in the meat business, because you don’t want to lose $86 a week breaking your chops.”
Eventually, Lou left the meat business and made a living as an actor. He worked with August Wilson on “Ma Rainey,” and did shows like “Man of La Mancha,” “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” “Alice,” “Bob Hope Presents,” and “Smith.” They’re all testimony to his success.
His arrival in Wilmington became a turning point not just for our community but for Lou, too. “People then were not theatre-orientated,” he reminded. During this time, a beguiling Mary James Morgan worked at Thalian Hall. Mary James—and her two beautiful daughters, Alice and Mary Anita—helped Lou launch the theatre company. He needed a crew to run backstage operations. “I left that up to Alice—she got all the crew, all her funky friends,” he said.
For nearly a decade of marriage, Lou and Mary James were the theatre world’s power couple, overseeing OHTC and MJM Talent. The talent agency came out of happenstance but ended up being a perfect counterpart to their business.
“The Fincannons [film casting directors] were calling actors directly—which was a big pain in the ass,” Lou stated. “So they called me and said, ‘Lou we can’t do this; we’re calling your actors. We need you to be their representative so we can call you and tell you who we want to see.’ I said, ‘Fine, OK.’ And I looked at Mary James and said, ‘You want to be an agent? Because you’re an agent now.’”
It was a symbiotic relationship, one that helped Mary James scout performers she might not otherwise see. She could get a feel for their workmanship beforehand, and many actors were signed to representation whom may not have otherwise had such an opportunity. It was then taht the movie industry exploded, as our city swelled with young hopefuls awaiting their discovery. If they found their way to Opera House, they certainly learned something about the craft of acting and the reality of professional performance.
When Mary James passed away, Opera House was starting “12 Angry Men.” Steve Vernon, artistic director of Big Dawg Productions and founder of BUMP Productions, joined the cast. He recalls it as one the most incredible experiences in his theatrical life. He remembers Lou funneling such profound grief into directing to create a monumental production.
“I have never in my life been directed like that before,” Vernon said. “If Lou taught me anything, it was how to really work with actors. To have the shock, and turn around and still have the kindness and humanity—a genuine concern.”
Actors heard it often in Lou’s guidance: “Speak up, find your light, and play the moment—not the end result.”
Ray Kennedy, long-time director for Opera House, said Lou was among the first in town to support color-blind casting. Though it may not seem like a big deal, in reality race still remains an issue in this day and age. For Lou it wasn’t about finding the person who looked like a perfect film actor; it was about casting the best performer to fill a role.
“Lou is the one that encouraged me to be a director, and while he always loved my … ’razzle dazzle,’ he always pushed me to dig deep and bring him projects that were not the norm,” Kennedy told encore last week. “Simply put, he shaped my life.”
Following Mary James’ passing, Lou’s grief and loneliness was palpable. One evening he walked into the cast party for an Opera House show at Roy’s Riverboat Landing. Across the room, an attractive blonde was smiling and talking with her friends.
“There was Miz Jeanne with a couple of her friends,” Lou recounted. “They knew people in the show and came to the party. I went in and saw her and said, ‘Please, God, don’t let her be an actor,’” Lou said with a grin. “We’ve been married 10 years.”
Of all the shows and all of the performances Lou has had his hands in throughout Wilmington, choosing one wasn’t easy. “Oh shit—my favorite show I’ve produced?” he asked, exasperated by the catalogue.
“Les Mis!” Jeanne called from the living room.
“She’s probably right,” he quipped. “I don’t know why everybody thinks it’s a hard show; I didn’t find it difficult. What’s all the whop about?”
Lou strove to define the best onstage. Most of what OHTC produces usually are big music-and-dance numbers. And they always feature a live band.
“Who ever heard of canned music when you’re doing a musical?” Lou asked. “You need a live orchestra up there. . . . The toughest part of doing theatre is the rehearsal process. That’s the hardest part.”
And Lou would know; he produced over 100 shows since he arrived in Wilmington. Despite battling cancer, thoughts never waned from the future of his beloved theatre company—and shows have continued and will continue to go on as part of his legacy.
Kennedy is currently preparing “Hark the Herald Angels Swing!”—an evening of cabaret, hosted at the Blockade Runner. He hoped Lou would be around to witness its success. Still, the cabaret will go on in celebration of the Opera House founder, featuring a live band, comedienne and singer Michelle Braxton, along with Opera House performers, on December 20 and 21 at the hotel (a prix-fixe dinner is also included for $35; show only, $25).
Alice has continued devising the 2015 season, which will celebrate 30 years of Opera House Theatre Company’s creative output. Monies from Kennedy’s cabaret will help launch “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” their first show of the season. They’ll also produce “Mary Poppins,” “Crazy for You,” “Chicago,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Lou always believed Alice and Opera House are interchangeable. She has been there from the beginning, aside from a two-year hiatus.
“But now she’s there for good,” he told me with a nod. “I’ve been letting her run with a lot of stuff this year, because I haven’t been feeling well. It seems to be working, so I’m not going to worry about it. I hope Alice takes over. She just takes it into another direction. Alice wants to do newer plays that are coming out on Broadway. I’m not going to be here; I hope it’s successful.”
A celebration of Lou Criscuolo’s life will take place Saturday, December 20, at St Paul’s Episcopal Church at 2 p.m.