Jay Poindexter’s New York theater career was hot in the 1980s and 1990s, but his most famous role — Tumblebrutus in “Cats” — required so much makeup, audiences would find him unrecognizable.
He landed the part of the hyper brown-and-white tabby in the mid ’80s, two years after moving to the city from his native Indiana.
“It was the attainment of a goal,” Poindexter says of the role he played for six years. “During that time the show was huge. We fondly called it ‘the litter box.’”
No longer a performer, Poindexter now works backstage at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. He was hired in 2006 to operate the fly rails. A trained gymnast and trapeze artist, Poindexter looks radically younger than his 53 years.
Seated on the quiet, empty Van Wezel stage, Poindexter pulls out a folder of photos, playbills and magazine clippings documenting his years in New York.
He pulls out a floppy, dog-eared issue of Vogue magazine and turns to a photo spread from the 1980s, in which he and his fellow “Cats” cast members are pictured in costumes alongside a bevy of fashion models.
Next, he reaches for a small softcover book filled with drawings an artist created of Poindexter while he sat in the makeup chair during his “Cats” stint.
Soft spoken and modest, Poindexter doesn’t use the memorabilia to brag, rather he sifts through it fondly like a history teacher paging through his lesson plans.
He fishes for a 2001 photograph of himself with actor Eric McCormack (“Will & Grace”) on the Broadway set of “The Music Man,” for which he worked as McCormack’s dresser.
He had dreadlocks then and had stopped performing altogether. He was working backstage as a dresser and part-time as a stage manager for the Theatre Hall of Fame Awards.
“I have found that working backstage is less stressful than being on stage,” Poindexter says. “When you’re on stage, you have to give 100% no matter what. You suck it up and the show goes on. When you’re backstage, there are at least moments of downtime.”
He says whenever an entertainer hears his back story they feel an instant kinship.
“There’s a camaraderie,” Poindexter says. “They know I’ve been there.”
Some stars even remember crossing his path, as was the case when Poindexter operated the spotlight this year for actress Chita Rivera.
Poindexter auditioned 18 years ago for Rivera’s tour of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” He remembers Rivera showed up for the last round of auditions, during which she flashed Poindexter the A-OK sign following his dance tryout.
“Chita remembered me,” Poindexter says. “How awesome is that?”
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“He was easy and a lot of fun. An incredibly talented guy.”
“She’s talkative and very supportive.”
“I denied her (a) dressing room change. She wanted one closer to the stage. She wasn’t happy about it, but there were no repercussions.”
“His show is topnotch. You laugh the entire time.”
“I tried to help her off the stage and she said to me, ‘Jay, you look so handsome.’ I had put a suit on. She noticed!”
Jay Poindexter explains the importance of operating a fly rail with kid gloves. Poindexter, a former Broadway dancer, works backstage as a fly rail operator at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
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