Most men don’t aspire to dance with the Rockettes, but that experience suits Joel Robertson just fine.
The 1969 Hampden Academy graduate is a central figure in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular production in Rosemont, Ill., one of seven such performances nationwide this holiday season. He plays Santa Claus.
“It’s a blast,” said Robertson. “It’s so much fun.”
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular features a cast of 55, including 20 Rockettes, 22 singers and dancers, four children, two skaters and six little people, but only one Santa.
The former Maine State Ballet dancer is featured in two numbers, “Santa’s Gonna Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “The Holiday Season.” He also reads letters from children as a segue between numbers by the Rockettes, now in their 75th year.
Many Santas end up sitting this time of year. But playing St. Nick has been one of the most physically challenging roles of the 50-year-old’s career. Wearing an extra 40 pounds of weight, between a fat suit and his Santa costume, Robertson, one of the older members of the cast, has to keep step with all the young dancers and Rockettes, even performing on the fabled kick line.
“It’s like they used to say about Ginger Rogers,” he said. “She had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.
“You have to lug all this [extra] weight around with you. You can’t see your feet because of the fat suit. It’s terrifying. I have to jump off this box, fall into people’s arms, then they threw me back up. It’s a real leap of faith.”
The Christmas Spectacular, which runs through Dec. 29, has enabled Robertson to dust off his tap skills, which he hasn’t had to use for 30 years.
Robertson was never a fan of tap, but he took it grudgingly with Polly Thomas of Bangor’s Thomas School of Dance.
“She’d say, ‘You have to take tap, Joel,’ but I hated it,” he recalled. “It was not something that I enjoyed. There was a lot of money going into the ballet companies back then, and [ballet] seemed more romantic to me, because you got to partner with the girls. I said, ‘For you, Polly, I’ll take it.’ Now, 30 years down the line, I get to dance with the Rockettes. You never know when something you say to people might kick in.”
Robertson got the role by auditioning for it, after being invited by Mark Simon, the show’s casting director. He had auditioned several times before, but didn’t get it. He said he drove his two children crazy by practicing his Santa voice around his New Jersey home.
He would work out at the gym each morning before rehearsals. It took some time to knock the rust off his tap skills.
“So many people would be intimidated at working with the world’s greatest dancers, and I certainly was,” he said. “I really had to work on it, because the steps are very precise, and director Julie Branham is very, very tough. It took me from the start of rehearsals Nov. 2 to opening day Nov. 23 to get comfortable. But it’s been thrilling. They’re wonderful, wonderful people and very supportive.”
The tenor has enjoyed a 20-year Broadway career, topped by starring as Gus the Theatre Cat in the original U.S. cast of “Cats” and a nine-year run in “Les Miserables.” He’s also appeared on Broadway in “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Parade” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Also, inspired by Thomas, Robertson and his wife, Kathleen Kellaigh, opened the Action Theatre Conservatory in Clifton, N.J., located 12 miles from New York City. Now in its 11th year, the conservatory has more than 14 teachers and 140 students a semester.
“A lot of people have launched their careers in our classes, and I feel very proud of that,” Robertson said.
When he returns home, Robertson will work some at the school. He’s also taking acting classes himself, and goes on auditions, seeking his next job.
“I’ve worked steady for 20 years,” he said. “Now I’m a different age, a different category. Things become more specific, and you have to get more training. That’s what I’m doing now.”
Since Sept. 11, there have been fewer theatergoers in New York, and as a result, less investment in Broadway shows and fewer opportunities for actors. So Robertson would be interested in a daytime drama role (he once did a week on “All My Children”) or film work.
“I’d like to be able to work in New York, to be near my family, but if a national tour would come up, I’d take it,” he said. “I do prefer stage, because you’re right there, it’s immediate, and there’s a joy in performing every night.”