UI graduate and former C-U resident enjoying run in Chicago as Fred Mertz
Curtis Pettyjohn, now appearing as Fred Mertz in "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" in Chicago, has moved a number of times but always seems to circle back to Chicago and Champaign. Like a homing pigeon, he says.
And after having given up theater before he moved back here in the early 2000s, Pettyjohn rediscovered his passion for the art form.
"The reason I stopped doing theater — something had burned out of me," he said. "I made lots of TV and regional and national commercials but stopped doing theater. When I moved to Champaign, I started doing theater again."
Here he worked with Mike Cornell and Angela Marcum. He appeared as Herbie in the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company's "Gypsy," winning the 2002 "Ginny" award for outstanding supporting actor.
Pettyjohn also appeared in "My Fair Lady" in 2003 at the Station Theatre. The last play he did while living here was Mike Trippiedi's "Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight" in 2005 at the Station.
"Working with Mike Trippiedi was the best time. It was an amazing production and just a joy doing that," he said.
As Fred Mertz, Pettyjohn is finding plenty of joy — to go along with excellent reviews.
"They've been wonderful," he said. "It's been great. I sort of feel like I've been waiting to do this part for most of my life and finally caught up to doing it."
The live show opened in September at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. Its run has been extended to March 17.
In the show, the cast members present two "I Love Lucy" episodes, following the original scripts. The show also features the "Ricky Ricardo Orchestra" at the famed Tropicana Nightclub.
The audience acts sort of like an "I Love Lucy" studio audience in 1952, hearing jingles between scenes for products like Palmolive and Brylcreem, sung by the Crystaltone Singers.
"It's not like they're sitting and watching the play," Pettyjohn said. "They're involved in it. People who haven't heard the commercials for forever sing along with them."
And the three generations of theater-goers who see "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" all know the characters and some of the story lines because "I Love Lucy" has aired almost continuously since it first went on the air in 1951.
Pettyjohn has noticed that today's television sitcom formula has nothing on "I Love Lucy," which Time magazine listed in 2007 as one of the "100 Best TV Shows of All Time."
"They perfected the three-camera technique," he said. "The 'I Love Lucy' scripts are fairly innocent — 1952 was the Eisenhower era — but the humor holds up."
"I Love Lucy Live on Stage" was created and is presented as a valentine to Lucille Ball, who died in 1989 at age 77 and was one of the most successful and beloved all-round female entertainers and executives of her time.
"It's done with great respect and great love," Pettyjohn said.
After the show closes in March, he will continue to do commercials and theater in Chicago.
"The lovely thing about being who I am at this age is I'm happy doing what I choose to do," the 57-year-old actor said. "And I'm lucky in the way I'm able to do that."
Pettyjohn is a triple threat in that he acts, dances and sings, though at this stage in his life he has changed on his resume "dances" to "moves well," he joked.
"I do drama, and the irony is that I always wanted to do really serious work," he said. "But every director has looked at me and pointed and said, 'Comedy,' and that's OK.
"Believe me: They say tragedy is easy and comedy is hard. It's true, true, true."
Pettyjohn first started acting when he was 15, playing the farm boy in a Springfield Municipal Opera Association production of "Gypsy."
He took to theater immediately.
"Muni opera in Springfield was a huge part of my life when I was growing up," he said. "I think that some of it was being involved with people all working toward the same end. Then I found I loved to sing and dance."
He went on to study theater at Illinois Wesleyan University and after two years transferred to the University of Illinois Department of Theatre, where he received classical and other training. He graduated in 1977; many of his classmates now work professionally, he said.
After graduating he did five months of training at a conservatory in San Francisco and then moved to Chicago to work, appearing in "Shear Madness," "My Fair Lady" and other productions, as well as working as an assistant producer for Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Unlike most actors, Pettyjohn never wanted to work in New York or Los Angeles.
"I've always loved the city of Chicago," said Pettyjohn, who worked in community development there. He helped turn around the Bucktown and Wicker Park neighborhoods — so much so that he now could not afford to buy a home there, he joked.
He moved to Champaign and later Urbana in the 2000s to be near his ailing father in Springfield. While living here, Pettyjohn rehabbed old houses in the State Street area and spoke publicly in favor of historic preservation.
He also operated his own "bodywork" business in an office on Green Street in Urbana. He came to bodywork in the late 1970s because it eliminated the chronic pain he had from an auto accident.
He continues his Pettyjohn Body Therapy business in Berwyn, where he lives, working on clients when he has "cracks" in his busy acting schedule. He returns here sometimes to work on clients, calling them his "lost colony."
"I still feel I have roots there," he said, adding that the Marcums feel like a second family to him. "It still fascinates me that I continue to circle around and reconnect with the community there."
After living in C-U, Pettyjohn moved to Knoxville, Tenn. There he started doing regional theater and rejoined the Actors' Equity Association, the labor union representing American actors and stage managers in theater. He's also a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Then he moved back to Chicago, where he was sort of recruited for the role of Fred Mertz.
"What I love, thinking about this while standing backstage for 'I Love Lucy,' is it's like a house you have to rebuild every performance, and you try to get the blueprint right and it can go wrong sometimes," he said. "But each and every time you're rebuilding something.
"It's fun, and at this age getting to sing and dance is a blast."
If you go
What: Broadway In Chicago presents "I Love Lucy Live on Stage," a musical adapted from episodes of "I Love Lucy," one of the longest-running sitcoms in television history, starring former Champaign-Urbana resident Curtis Pettyjohn as Fred Mertz
When: Through March 17
Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago
Tickets: $35 to $85 (for groups of 10 or more, tickets start at $25 each and may be purchased by calling 312-977-1710); tickets available at all Broadway In Chicago box offices at 24 W. Randolph St., 151 W. Randolph St., 18 W. Monroe St. and 175 E. Chestnut St. or the Broadway In Chicago ticket kiosk at Water Tower Place, 845 N. Michigan Ave. or the Broadway In Chicago ticket line at 800-775-2000, all Ticketmaster locations and at http://www.broadwayinchicago.com