BY CARY GINELL
Ventura County has its share of young, talented performers, but the anchors for many of these splendid productions are the veteran actors who have settled here after having successful careers elsewhere. One of those stalwarts is Australia-born David Gilchrist. You’ve seen him in a number of shows in the Conejo and Simi Valleys – he’s usually the crusty older gent who is light on his feet and can bring down a house quicker than a croc can snap up a jackrabbit. David is achieving his lifelong goal starting this Friday when he will appear as Sir Joseph Porter in the Gilbert & Sullivan classic, H.M.S. Pinafore. We visited with David recently and chatted about his long career. Or should we say “careers.”
VCOS: There’s a lot we don’t know about you. You’ve been a great character actor around town for the past decade, the go-to guy for anything British. Is this your second career? Third career?
DAVID: I think it’s my third. My first career was theater. Fifty years ago, in Australia, I got on a live talent show on television. It was all live in those days. And that sent me off to England. I joined Equity, got into the West End, and spent the next 20 years working in theater. I played juvenile leads and leading characters and had a wonderful time performing all over the world: South Africa, Australia. That was in the sixties and seventies.I was trained in opera and used to get on stage as a barber and shave a guy while I did The Barber of Seville. My singing teacher in England was at Covent Garden and she used to take me to all the rehearsals, so I got to meet all the stars. I was doing A Little Night Music; I played the Count. Stephen Sondheim once came out to Australia to do a forum. So I went up to him and said, “How do you do, Mr. Sondheim. I play the Night in “A Little Count Music.” (laughs) Wrong! So I auditioned for the opera company there and ended up in a rock musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I was the Narrator, which was, back then, played by a guy. We had all kinds of famous people coming down from England because this production of Joseph played for nearly three years in South Africa.
VCOS: What did you do next?
DAVID: By the eighties, the cruise ship business was starting and the theater business was going through a period where theaters were going broke. So I got into cruises. Australia had their own little ship called the Sea Princess, so I started doing theater at sea. So I spent the next twenty years on cruise ships and worked my way up from doing theater to cabaret and concert work. I had my own act where I put all my party pieces together.
VCOS: What was your act like?
DAVID: It started with Gilbert and Sullivan. My very first show was H.M.S. Pinafore in 1960. I played the little mid-shipmate, the cabin boy. And here I am, fifty-five years later, playing the role of my lifetime, Sir Joseph. I’ve been waiting all my life to get this role! I got in a commercial in Australia in the eighties. I sang Gilbert and Sullivan in a carpet layer’s commercial. It was around the time Paul Hogan was big with Crocodile Dundee. So I had my carpet layer mates with me and I came on singing, “When I was a lad, I served my time, cutting carpet and stitching fine / I learned to lay it the proper way, I could do THREE ROOMS in half a day.” (laughs) And the other guys would sing, “he could do three rooms in half a day.” So that made me a household name in Australia. And I put that in my act. I would strip down to shorts and a T-shirt, making me a kind of Paul Hogan lookalike. So I did the clubs in Australia, did the ships, and this alter ego kind of took over my career. After I worked my way into being a sort of a headliner, that brought me to America on the Princess. So I spent ten years as a headliner, cruising around America and fell in love with this country. Eventually I got to Vegas and did a stint there, but I lost my voice. I’d been at sea all my life and wasn’t used to the desert and the dehydration destroyed my voice.
VCOS: Where did you work in Vegas?
DAVID: The Riviera. My eight band members all lived in Vegas so they backed me and I had my own lounge, but it was so dry I literally lost my voice. I thought it was just old age, but I didn’t realize how dehydration can actually dry you up. So I came here to enjoy my retirement. One night, I went to see Jekyll and Hyde by Cabrillo Music Theatre and thought, “I’ve got to get back into this.” My voice was coming back by then. I hadn’t sung for years, but I went and auditioned for The King and I and Lewis Wilkenfeld gave me the role of the Captain. That was in 2008. Then he cast me in Cinderella, and next I got the butler in The Sound of Music, and then the butler in Annie. My biggest break, I think, was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with David Daniels directing and Kris Kyer starring. I played Grandpa Potts. That’s when I realized I could do old-man-character-stuff. And I just loved it! So I’ve been playing old man characters ever since.
VCOS: Tell me about Sir Joseph.
DAVID: It’s the role of a lifetime for me. It’s a character I can just fall straight into. He’s a bit like Donald Trump, he’s one of these self-made men. The character is based on W. H. Smith. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. In England, he ran this big publishing firm. He started off selling newspapers and then worked his way up, serving writs in a legal shop. He eventually made all this money, went into Parliament, and they made him the Lord Admiral of the Sea in the British Navy. And he’d never been on a ship before! So I’m Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. He’s a crazy character. A bit like Donald Trump.
VCOS: I can’t believe that in all these years, you haven’t done Gilbert & Sullivan.
DAVID: Well, I always did it in my act. We’re doing a promo now and I’m doing all of the songs I used to do in Gilbert & Sullivan in my act. I do a whole medley. I love how Rebecca and John Pillsbury have built up their own little repertory theater company, and I’ve always wanted to do that. To be involved with them is the most exciting thing for me, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I just love Gilbert & Sullivan.
VCOS: There’s a lot of room for physical comedy in that role. Do you add stuff of your own to it?
DAVID: It’s the weirdest thing. It’s been 55 years since I last did it, but it’s all coming back to me like it was yesterday. All the little bits of business. I was the little fella then but I remember all the bits of business that Sir Joseph and the Captain did – I remember seeing John Reed play Sir Joseph in London, he was the ultimate. I auditioned for D’Oyly Carte when I was in England, but I was a bit young, 18, 19, but it was always my passion to spend the rest of my life doing Gilbert & Sullivan with D’Oyly Carte. By the eighties, they had sort of faded out of existence along with a lot of other commercial companies, so that’s when I hit the ships.
VCOS: Is this your first show with the Gilbert & Sullivan Repertoire Company?
DAVID: I did Utopia for Rebecca and John a few years ago. I had a coconut or something on my hat, running around the Hillcrest Center and Lewis came downstairs and stopped me. Somebody had fallen out of Once Upon a Mattress and he asked me if I would play the Wizard. So I was literally running from doing that part back here to do Utopia.
VCOS: How about some of the other roles you’ve done for Cabrillo?
DAVID: I’ve done eight shows there now and have been very fortunate. Lewis has given me so many breaks. After Once Upon a Mattress, I did 1776, playing the old drunk, Stephen Hopkins. Recently I did Mary Poppins where I played the old Chairman of the Board.
VCOS: Did you ever do television?
DAVID: I did commercials once for Boodles Gin. I was this terribly English butler. An old English butler. Actually, a BUT-LUH. I should show you the commercials, they’re hysterical. We went up north of San Francisco to shoot one. We did one in Death Valley where I’m walking over these sand dunes, carrying this bottle of gin on a tray, dressed in white tie and tails, of course. The winds are howling and everything – In another, we went to the top of Mammoth and I’m walking on the top of this mountain, with all this snow all around me. Then we went to the Coast and did one in the Redwood forest. Then we went to the British moors and the white cliffs of Dover. I’m there when anyone wants to have this gin brought to them, and when I arrive, I say, “You calllllled?” and the tag was “Send for Boodles”. (laughs)
Search on YouTube for “Send for Boodles” to see David’s commercials. Here’s one:
VCOS: Have you ever done Pickering in My Fair Lady? You’d be perfect in that part.
DAVID: I’ve done it at sea.
VCOS: But recently you did a part that wasn’t English, didn’t you?
DAVID: Yes, I was Andrew Carnes in Oklahoma! I did it kind of like an Australian – you just have to close your mouth a little and don’t let the flies in. I’ve played Americans in other countries but I swore that after I came here, I would never play an American. So that was my first attempt. But I had such fun doing that. I’m 68 now, but maybe when I turn 70, I will start my fourth career!
See David Gilchrist as Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore starting this Friday at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.