photo courtesy Barry Fuller
H e was the first actor to play Ebenezer Scrooge when Theatre Memphis debuted its production of A Christmas Carol in 1978, and he’s filled those curmudgeonly shoes more than a dozen times since then. Last year, when he turned 85, he announced he was retiring from the role, but hardly from theater. (In fact in October he appeared as the Old Actor in The Fantasticks.) Recently the Australian native talked about his past — and his future — on the stage. That future might include a comeback as Dickens’ “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” beloved by all. And nobody plays the part quite like Barry Fuller.
What attracted you to theater as a boy? I had a very dear aunt who used to think that the world shone out of me. She would put on an old record and I’d wind up the phonograph and sing along to “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.” I guess I was about 4. Bum is a swear word in Australia, it’s another word for butt, and that made it even funnier. So it’s never stopped; I loved to entertain then, and I still do.
Tell us about your first stage performance. In the moviehouses in Australia back in the Thirties, they did a halftime show. When I was 11 years old, I tap-danced for the Christmas production of a Cecil B. DeMille movie in Sydney.
How did you wind up in Memphis? I came to the states to attend the University of Iowa, which has a very good drama department. There I met George and Barbara Touliatos, who were from Memphis and they had formed a group down here, Front Street Theatre. They invited me to come to Memphis. I played Malvolio in Twelfth Night. I went back to school and graduated, then moved here for good in 1960.
It’s been 37 years since Theatre Memphis first showed A Christmas Carol. And you played Scrooge 13 of those years. More than anyone else? That’s right. I did the first five years and the last four years and several others in between.
What made you decide to give up the role? I didn’t want to hog it. It’s a role every young actor should have the opportunity to try, as I did 30 to 40 years ago when I was lots younger. I brought my own touches to it, a funny walk, some little tics. The character offers plenty to work with.
You’ve also performed in ballets and operas, right? I have played Herr Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker for Ballet Memphis. And I sang with two leading ladies of the opera world, Beverly Sills and Dame Joan Sutherland. Small roles in those productions, but nonetheless I sang them.
When will you be on stage again? In February, I’ll have a small role in The Boy from Oz, a musical about Australian entertainer Peter Allen. My good friend Jerry Chipman will direct it. I’ll get to sing “I Still Call Australia Home.” I’m looking forward to that!
Will you be performing anywhere in December? No-no-no, and it will be wonderful to do some leisurely shopping. Theater takes up a lot of time. And the dedication of the casts I’ve performed with has been amazing. Young kids come to rehearsals with their school books. Then they get up and rehearse and work hard, then go back to their books. A lot of people are involved in these productions at such a busy time of year, and they should truly be applauded.
Where will you be when the curtain rises this year on A Christmas Carol? I have some family coming from Australia in early December to visit and to see the new Scrooge! This family came last year — my second cousin and her little boy, 7 — but we got iced in, so they missed the show. They love the city — the zoo, the Children’s Museum. This time I’m also going to take the boy to Playhouse on the Square to see Peter Pan.
Will fans see Barry Fuller as Scrooge ever again? I’ll tell you this: I’m aiming to live the next four years and come back and play Scrooge when I’ll be 91 and Theatre Memphis will be 100. Gotta have some things to look forward to. I will probably miss playing the part this year. It’s a lot of hard work but also a lot of joy. And I always knew when I got up there that the audience loved it.
That makes it all worthwhile.