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S t a g e l i f e

The Man Who Made Dreams Come True

Thirty years ago, Lou Criscuolo launched the Opera House Theater Company’s first season — a pillar of the Port City’s thriving theater life By Gwenyfar Rohler

When “The Spirit of Fezziwig”

Photograph by Mark steelman

was selected as one of the themes for our holiday issue, my first thought was: The spirit of Fezziwig in the theater community? Oh, that’s Lou Criscuolo, without a doubt.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mr. Fezziwig is born to humble beginnings. Through hard work and determination he finds success, but in the end he chooses his ideals over fortune. Same goes for Mr. Criscuolo. In 1985, Lou Criscuolo launched Opera House Theatre Company’s first season at Thalian Hall. Thirty years later, Opera House is still one of the foundation pillars that supports our extended theatrical world here. It was an odd confluence of events that brought Criscuolo to Wilmington. “How did you leave Broadway to come here?” I asked. “Broadway is every actor’s dream!” Criscuolo shrugs and gives his famous lopsided grin. “At that point I was 50 . . . and I did everything I had to do in New York . . . I did everything I had to do in California. I did movies, I did plays, I just did everything. I thought, ‘It’s time to change directions.’ So let’s start a theater company.” Born in New York City in 1934 to Italian immigrants, Criscuolo’s father supported the family as a pushcart peddler selling produce. “I never knew we were poor or broke. Everybody was, so we thought it was the same all

The Art & Soul of Wilmington

around, you know?” He recalls childhood fondly: playing ball with his friends, helping his dad after school — but best of all was going to 125th Street to the Italian Theatre with his mother on Sunday afternoons. “They had a wonderful tradition that if you were good, they would throw confetti up on the stage. But if you were bad, they would throw money so you could pick it up and get off.” Criscuolo says he always knew he wanted to be an actor, but that he didn’t know where to start. He shrugs again. “One thing just led to another . . . I just kept plugging away.” In the meantime he had started a family and was unloading beef from freight cars for $86 a week. He was still on stage every chance he could get. One night Robert Duvall caught Criscuolo in a performance. “He was doing Naked City at the time,” says Criscuolo, recalling the television crime drama. Duvall recommended him to the casting director, “and I auditioned and got the job.” That led to appearances on Naked City, the TV series Route 66, plus more plays. Criscuolo was suddenly a working actor. “I look at everything as ‘it’s a job .’ It was a job that came to me, so I’m going to do the best I can.” His resumé is a testimony to that: Man of La Mancha, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Finian’s Rainbow and Smith are just a few of the stage credits from that era; add Alice and Bob Hope Presents to the list of television credits. In 1983, Criscuolo was invited to appear in Remembered Nights, a show commissioned for the 125th Anniversary of Thalian Hall. He remembers looking around at the beautiful theater and observing that they must do a lot of summer stock here. December 2014 •

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December Salt 2014  

The Art & Soul of Wilmington

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