If Bob King feels out of place at times, it’s expected. He’s 30 years older than most of his co-workers. But after 25 years of insurance and private business ownership, he’s enjoying a new career as a professional actor.
“These young folks who are just getting into it, they’re looking to make it their lives,” King said. They’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars in coaches and lessons and elite educations. “They’re all well-trained, and sometimes I feel like I don’t fit in because all of my experience came from practical experience in community theater.”
King is a veteran of the Aiken and Augusta theater companies, having worked with Stage III, the Aiken Community Playhouse, the Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre and the University of South Carolina-Aiken in everything from musicals to drama.
And then his wife, Shirley, set him on his current path, which currently involves playing Pop with the touring cast of “Gypsy.” The show will stop in Augusta at the Bell Auditorium on Nov. 20.
“My wife encouraged me about five years ago to go out and audition for real. Like everybody else, I was terrified to do it. I did my first audition in Florida for the Florida Professional Theater Association. I got a couple of callbacks, but I auditioned for about 12 months before I got my first job,” King said.
The musical, “Gypsy,” is based on the memoirs of famous burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. It is considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. The musical focuses on Gypsy’s overbearing stage mother, Rose, as she pushes Gypsy (then known as Louise) and her sister June into a vaudeville life. The original production starred Ethel Merman as Mama Rose, and has also featured Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Tyne Daly in stage revivals. It sparked such classic songs as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “May We Entertain You.”
But to break into even a touring company, dozens and sometimes hundreds of national companies show up to these mass auditions. Thousands of aspiring stage stars do their best to impress them. The talent is as massive as the crowds. But there are only so many plays, and so many parts.
“They’re all talented. It’s just a matter of does that talent and that look fit the character, and does this character go with that character,” King explained.
Actors take on the expense of traveling to auditions, including King’s callback to New York City. And they aren’t getting rich off of the life. The cast travels by tour bus and accommodations, while not sparse, are economical. On this stopover, the cast was staying at the Clarion Hotel in Fayetteville, N.C. King may tour five to seven months out of the year, living out of a suitcase.
“I absolutely love it,” he laughed. “We do travel as much as 5-600 miles in a day. But for me, I’ve got my seat on the bus with this big picture window looking out at all the beautiful sites in America. It’s like a vacation you work for every night.”
And while separation can be hard on a marriage, Shirley maintains a collection of scrapbooks of all of his shows.
“I couldn’t do it without her and I wouldn’t do it without her. It’s just a very special thing. We’ve been married for 39 years,” King said.
And they’ve been through changes, moving from Michigan when King burned out after 25 years in the insurance company. They moved to Aiken, S.C., to pursue his childhood dream: to own a miniature golf course. It’s still there, the former Championship Miniature Golf, but they sold the business when the hours began to overwhelm them.
But out on the road, crossing 37 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, doing perhaps seven shows a week as Pop and understudying for two more parts, surrounded by college students and away from his wife, he’s not the least bit overwhelmed. King calls it the time of his life.
“At this point in my life it’s just a thrill to be part of it,” he said. “When I made that trip to New York, I had no idea they were going to offer me that contract. I have heard that to get this cast of 23 people, they looked at nearly 3,000 people.”
Met with such daunting odds, most people would give it up before they turned 30. But at 60 years old, Bob King is just getting started.