Tim After Tim
By Sam Weller
DECEMBER 8, 1997: Marley is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. In fact, the one-time business partner of that candy-cane-leery curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, has gone and died 957 times at the Goodman Theatre by the time I pay the perennial holiday production a visit. The production will hit a whopping 1,000th performance on December 23. Since 1978, night after night, under the glow of the Goodman lights, Scrooge has been re-discovering the cup of holiday cheer within his old grinchy heart. With a little help from three spirits and a small crippled boy named Tiny Tim, of course. But then again, had Scrooge been forced to deal with the post-Thanksgiving bedlam on the Edens Expressway as turkey-bloated shoppers battled their way home from Gurnee Mills, I have a sneaking suspicion he would have stuck with his "bah-humbug" mantra and told Jacob Marley's spirit to "stuff it," love-inspiring tots be damned.
Over the span of the production's two-decade run, seventeen actors have portrayed the crutch-and-brace bearing Tiny Tim Crachit -- the catalyst of Scrooge's holiday-hating about-face. These days, pint-sized Jack Huber, a disconcerting ringer for the Keebler Elf, gets the nod. But just where are the other sixteen Tims lurking these days? With a cup of spiked egg-nog in hand, I decided to dust off the Goodman Theatre's "where are they now" file and find out. Were the former Tiny Tims living the lives so many child stars do -- serving time for handgun possession? Which of them, if any, were singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" from a Methadone clinic? After a few weeks of nosing around, I found eight Tims, all doing quite well, thank you very much.
But just what is it about Tiny Tim that has enabled the little bugger to make such an indelible impression on the holiday consciousness ever since Charles Dickens created him in 1843? Who better to ask than Scrooge himself? Tom Mula, who is in his seventh and final year portraying cranky ole Ebenezer, seems to take his character to heart when assessing the lad.
"I don't think in the Dickens' book the character is really that big of a catalyst," Mula says. "In the movies they lean on it and certainly in the plays they lean on it because it's such a strong dramatic hook. Every parent who is watching it will substitute their child for Tiny Tim. I've had totally cynical, hard-boiled friends weeping openly at the story because they have kids. So Dickens was very smart -- he said 'there's no pain greater than the loss of a child.'"
While I have Mula's attention, I ask whether or not the old actor's adage, "Never work with children or animals" applies to his experience with the many Tiny Tims he has shared the stage with.
"That is absolutely true," he says. "Kids and animals are totally in the moment. They're not limited to what the script says. They're not doing what they're supposed to do. They are completely in the moment. And of course that's much more interesting to watch. Kids and animals will instantly steal focus. Because you, as an adult actor, have to follow the script. You have places to go, things to say. You've got these kids up there saying, 'Oh, my butt itches, oh excuse me, I'm scratching my butt now.' That's much more entertaining."
Before I part ways with Mula, he offers that my intention of ferreting out Tiny Tims is a rather "spooky" venture and wonders if any are now in jail.
I will soon find out.
"Playing Tiny Tim was one of the best experiences I've ever had," says Duda in a deep voice that belies the elfin vocal chords of the young boy he once portrayed. "My brother was in the play, too. He played the Turkey Boy and young Ebenezer Scrooge. We just spent so much time together, it was really very special." Duda quickly adds that the late hours of the theatre world were a bit grueling for a 5-year-old kid who had to rise and shine in the morning for kindergarten. This slight grievance of child-actor fatigue is something I will hear from each of the Tiny Tims I speak with.
"I'd be getting home at one o'clock in the morning every day and getting up and going to school. It was such hard work, but it was so much fun."
I ask Duda if playing such a pivotal role in the Christmas classic had any perks. Were there any Tiny Tim groupies? "Oh yeah," Duda says, convincingly, and then laughs. Guess that little crutch is real a chick magnet.
"Can I help you," she says, looking at me with skepticism. She certainly can tell that I wasn't a Jehovah's witness or an Avon sales person pitching Skin So Soft. I think she just pegs me as a freak. Compounding matters, trying to be clever, and not knowing that I have the wrong residence, I ask if Tiny Tim is home. The woman stares at me through glazed eyes and, kindly, doesn't close the door in my face. After explaining myself, she informs me that I definitely have the wrong home.
"Happy Holidays," she says.
I decide to persevere. I head to the neighbor's house and ring the bell. Within moments, a boy who would fit the age of my elusive 1988 Tiny Tim is standing before me. A holiday miracle?
"Hi," I say. "I'm doing a story on all the actors that have played Tiny Tim."
"Yeah," the kid responds, totally deadpan.
"Uhhh... might that be you?"
"Uhhh... can we talk?"
"I'm kinda busy."
Giving the pre-pubescent kid the once-over, I get the vibe that I have torn him away from his Sony Play Station. Fortunately, the kid is kind enough to give up his phone number and I call him later that afternoon.
"I was four years old, I think," says Cristopher Creighton, now an eighth grader at St. Viator's. "I remember some of my experience with the play, but not much." Creighton doesn't do much acting these days, instead focusing on his interests in drawing and sculpting. As for his recollections of playing Tiny Tim, Creighton reiterates a sentiment I will hear over and over again. "I remember the people in the cast the most. They were all real nice."
"Have you been in any trouble lately?" I ask, hoping for a child-star tale that would make the "Different Strokes" cast proud. "Not really," Creighton says, sounding almost disappointed in himself.
After chatting with De May, quickly, a Tiny Tim trend becomes apparent. Most of these kids had agents at the ripe old age of five. These little wunderkinds, I notice, are, by and large, products of over-eager soccer-moms hungry for the stage lights to wash over their children. The casting of Tiny Tim, these boys will tell you, is a cattle call bar none. The judging panel herds the Tiny-wanna-be into an audition room (sans parents) and has him sing a Christmas carol and recite a poem. Most of the actors hear about the auditions through a newspaper ad.
"My agent called me up and said, 'You have an audition for Tiny Tim at the Goodman,'" De May recalls. "It was an open call so they had like hundreds of kids all over the place and I went in there and recited 'The Night Before Christmas' and I sang 'All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.' I was totally nervous. I was just a little kid standing before this little panel of people all staring at me."
Bagging the part for De May, and all the other Tiny Tims in "A Christmas Carol," is akin to winning the kiddie-actor's lottery. Although the role pays less than $2,000 for the six-week run (plus three weeks of rehearsal), it's the exposure that counts. Over the twenty-year span of the Goodman production, more than 700,000 people have heard little Timmy mutter his famous closing line: "God bless us, every one." Brendon De May, not surprisingly, was bitten by the actor's bug after his Goodman gig and continues to pursue a career under the lights. He has appeared in numerous national commercials as well as the film "The Babe," the story of Babe Ruth. "Not the pig movie," he clarifies. Currently, he is torn between pursuing a career in law and continuing his trek down celebrity way.
"After 'A Christmas Carol,' I got the commercials, movies, print jobs, etcetera." As with many of the other Tiny Tims, Coffey's mother spotted the casting call for the role in the Chicago Tribune. During our chat, Coffey occasionally requests that some of his statements be "off the record." No doubt, this kid's gonna be in pictures, Ma. But, then again, when asked about his adult aspirations, Coffey responds with a curve ball. "I don't know about acting for the rest of my life," he says. "I've been thinking about being a plastic surgeon. When I was seven, I got my thumb caught in the car door and it was really bad and my parents took me to the hospital and got me a plastic surgeon, specifically, and he did a great job. I just marveled at his work."
When asked about his fondest "Christmas Carol" memory, young Coffey is quick to respond. "I'm very proud of the fact that I did fifty-six straight performances and I never missed a show. Not once."
If this kid isn't a Dreamworks partner in two years, I'll be amazed.
Erwin's warmest memory of the theatrical experience was the camaraderie among the cast members. "We'd get warmed up back stage singing 'Jingle Bell Rock' and stuff. It was wonderful." Erwin's tenure as Tiny Tim also coincided with Tom Mula's first year as Ebenezer Scrooge. "He was great. He was just hilarious."
Currently, Erwin is shooting an industrial for the Illinois Office of Tourism, but is still unsure as to whether or not he will pursue a career in acting. "I want to try other things. Acting is tough. I really like photography. We'll see."
As for the role enabling young Pittman to get all the babes, he said that he had a girlfriend while performing in "A Christmas Carol." "She worked at the theatre," he says. "She was grown-up. She wasn't an actress, but she was right by the stage all the time. We were kind of dating. I guess we were kinda in love." At the time, Pittman was 8.
The night I see "A Christmas Carol," scores of kids in the audience break out in tears at some of the more frightful scenes revolving around the ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come. Hardcore sobbing and several spankings reverberate in the Goodman space as the actors pay no mind and continue with the show. I ask Oberlander if he was ever frightened by the spooky nature of the Dickens tale. "Not at all. I learned a lot of the backstage secrets, like how they worked the comet in the ghost of Christmas past scene, and how they moved the float in the 'present' scene" (someone's inside, in case you were wondering).
Today, Oberlander, at the venerable age of 8, is focused on a career in directing and writing. He does still act, however, and he's quick to offer that "he's multi-listed" with several agencies. He's already written three plays, including one "very heavy drama" entitled "The Kidnapping of Life."
"It's a very heavy drama, he adds in all seriousness. "It's the story of two homeless kids that steal from grocery stores just so they can live and they get thrown in jail. And there's an innocent man in there that is facing the death penalty. It's a very heavy play." Oberlander's goal for the upcoming summer is to complete the script and try to get it produced. In his short career, Oberlander has already portrayed two characters who die of AIDS, making him perhaps the ex-Tiny Tim most likely to star in an ABC "After-School Special."
Ah, child actors. God help us, every one.
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