Fans of the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre are probably well acquainted with J. Paul Wargo.
The easygoing box office manager has been fielding questions from ticket buyers and wayward downtown pedestrians for 17 years.
His desk sits precariously close to a door that swings open to a set of stairs that leads up to the control booth. As amiable as he is, Wargo admits he sometimes hides behind the door if someone notoriously “crazy” walks into the box office.
He came to the theater in 1994 to audition for a production of “Brigadoon.” The show was scheduled to open at the company’s Venice location — back when the Golden Apple still operated a theater in Venice.
Wargo was 26 at the time, baby-faced and fresh out of college. He was living in Orlando and working at Universal Studios, where he ran the amusement park’s E.T. Adventure ride.
Although “Brigadoon” wasn’t the right fit, Wargo was offered the lead in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” a role he reprised in 2000 when the theater took a touring production of the musical to Singapore.
Contrary to what he may think, the 43-year-old actor is one yellow shirt away from passing as the Peanuts character.
“I was always cast in younger roles,” Wargo sighs. “Now I feel like I’m looking 43 and definitely not getting the roles I used to.”
Golden Apple founders Bob and Roberta Turoff offered him a job in the theater’s box office after his first Charlie Brown run came to an end.
Tired of the drive between Orlando and Sarasota, Wargo accepted the offer. He even moved in with the Turoffs and later lived with the couple’s oldest son, Ben, now the manager of The Glenridge Performing Arts Center.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life,” Wargo says. “I always knew I wanted to be a working actor, but I didn’t want to end up in musical theater. It’s hard work, and it’s time-consuming.”
And did he mention it’s loud?
On this particular Monday, as the cast of “Cheerful Little Earful” belts out show tunes on stage, Wargo stretches out on a chair in the lobby and engages in quiet conversation with nary a sign of exasperation.
The melodies (“We’re in the Money”) aren’t exactly calming.
“I would rather hear music and singing than have it be quiet,” he says. “It keeps your spirits up. When you’re here alone and the theater is dark, it can make for a long day.”
A TV buff, Wargo grew up in Maine and dreamed of becoming a sitcom star. He idolized the casts of “Laverne & Shirley,” “Happy Days” and “Three’s Company.”
Around the same time that he moved to Sarasota with a theater degree, “Friends” premiered on NBC.
The only problem was Wargo didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, so he moved to Florida, where he appeared in a TV movie starring Lauren Bacall and an episode of “Thunder in Paradise,” a short-lived action-adventure show starring Hulk Hogan.
His efforts to dodge musical theater proved futile, when Wargo landed a part in “A Chorus Line” alongside then up-and-coming performer Wayne Brady at The Mark Two Dinner Theatre in Orlando.
“I’m happy with what I’m doing now,” Wargo says. “I took a two-year break once and worked for a dermatologist. It wasn’t the right field for me. I thought it would be all creams and Botox and, instead, it was all skin cancer. There’s not much fun in that.”
BOX OFFICE ANECDOTES
Strange brushes with old celebs
“Betty Buckley called the theater once to talk to Bob. I saw her in ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ I even wrote her fan club as a kid. ‘Eight is Enough’ was one of my favorite shows.”
Silly questions from strangers
“People call us all the time to ask what shows are playing at the other theaters in town. Or how about this one: ‘How much are your $42 tickets?’ We get that one a lot.”
IF YOU GO
“Cheerful Little Earful,” a musical homage to Hollywood composer and lyricist Harry Warren, is up now through Nov. 27, at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre. For tickets, call 366-5454 or visit thegoldenapple.com.
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