I was a Polish kid who grew up in the back of our family tavern, Airway Liquors, on the southwest side of Chicago. I played a lot of baseball and hung out with the guys in the neighborhood. I was attending an all-boys high school, St. Laurence, when a few of my friends told me that guys were needed for a production of Carousel at Lourdes, the all-girls high school.
I said, “That’s not my kind of thing.” My friends literally lifted me up by the elbows and dragged me through the stage door of the girls’ school, where I met Sister George Ann — the director. I stayed and performed in the show and juggled a plate on a stick as the curtain opened to “The Carousel Waltz.” I was hooked.
I started taking singing, dancing and acting lessons and performed in high school, college and community shows. I even got paid $12 a week as an apprentice at The Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan, Illinois.
One day, Frances Moore, my singing teacher and mentor, told me they were looking for one replacement in the chorus of the first national company of Promises, Promises at the Shubert Theatre [now the Bank of America Theatre] in downtown Chicago. They were looking at Equity and non-Equity; I ran over to the audition and made it down to the final cut between me and one other guy — the other guy happened to be my dance teacher.
They made us do the combination together on stage. Although I was scared, something inside me said, “Go for it!” I did and I got the job and my Equity card.
I got home to our tavern as fast as I could and told my dad, who was behind the cash register, “I’m a professional actor now.” He hugged me and told customers who came in the store all day that his son was an actor. He was so proud of me.
Thirty years later I returned to the Shubert in Chicago as Mr. Cellophane in the musical Chicago. All those memories came rushing back to embrace me. The local crew gave me a piece of marble from the lobby as a memento of my first Equity production; it sits on my dresser and always will. Most amazingly, Barney Martin, the original Mr. Cellophane, was in that national company of Promises, Promises so many years ago, and here I am writing this from my dressing room at the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, where I have been playing Mr. Cellophane for the last 5 years.
Editor’s Note: P.J. Benjamin played the role of Amos Hart in Chicago three times on Broadway, his last dates being May 23 – Sep. 4, 2005.