Burlington actor Rick Ames waxes frenetic about weird collections and plum parts
Antique theatrical lights. A Dunkin’ Donuts bucket from the early 1970s. An autographed letter from Bea Arthur. The room can barely hold its tag-sale finds. The apartment’s occupant is clearly eclectic — or, as he puts it, “a big queer.”
The dude relaxing on his ReCycle North sofa in a loud vintage shirt has made an eclectic choice of roles, too. Cable subscribers may know him best as Rick Ames, who entered homes throughout Vermont and parts of New Hampshire for nine years as the announcer of the homegrown public-access game show “Survey Says.” And more than a few local kids have given him their Christmas lists when he played Santa at the University Mall.
Fans of local professional theater know the tall Springfield native, who also calls himself “long-haired hippie,” by a more formal name: “Rick Ames is the fun character guy,” he clarifies. “G. Richard Ames is the actor. I go by Rick because I was called Gary the fairy all through eighth grade — and look what I became.”
G. Richard Ames is currently appearing in the Waterbury Festival Players’ production of Wait Until Dark, in the role created by Robert Duvall and played in the 1998 revival by Quentin Tarantino. The thriller, which ends with a grueling blackout struggle between a drug smuggler and his blind victim, has been taking its toll on Ames, 38. He describes the trials of the role: “I’ve always said that I like to look like the Scarecrow on stage and be flexible. But when I leave the theater, my body stops working for me and I feel like the Tin Man.”
That Hollywood metaphor is pure Ames. While his apartment stuffed with retro memorabilia would fit right into a funky part of Silver Lake, the actor has put down firm Vermont roots. Indeed, he says this has been the busiest year of his 20-year acting career. Work has come nonstop, from his plum role as Macheath in the University of Vermont’s spring production of The Threepenny Opera to his end-of-the-year gig stage-managing Catalyst Theater Company’s holiday perennial, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
“I’m not a stage manager. I’m just an actor who can act like a stage manager. It’s a role I play well, I think, but it’s not a role I relish,” Ames is quick to point out. What he does relish — and has secured through his agreement with Catalyst Artistic Director Veronica Lopez — is a place for his first foray into writing and directing. Ames’ play Hope for the Holidays? will be staged each night after the curtain descends on Catalyst’s family-friendly holiday favorite.
The hour-long, adult-themed piece is a light-hearted musical attack on the commercialization of Christmas. Much of the show’s plot is based on the author’s own four-year experience at the University Mall. “I was the best Santa they ever had,” he claims. “I wrote a song about how much I hated it and how I would never do it again, and then I did another year.”
The budding auteur’s next project, slated for late 2009, is a film. Ames has played the lead in several local films, most notably the 2004 short “Joesquatch,” produced by the now-defunct Burlington Filmmakers Group. His script Open Casket follows a 1970s couple who rob wakes and funerals; Ames describes it as a “dramedy.” The available props dictated the period setting. “I’m a cluttered-house, dust-bunny guy,” says Ames.
The trappings of life in the 1960s and ’70s are an obsession for this collector. He wrote a whole scene of his film in order to feature a pair of vintage trash cans — one of which was procured from an unsuspecting UVM security guard.
Less time for thrifting is the one drawback to Ames’ active year: “I’m getting sad because I have some work coming up that’s going to keep me from going to my main thrift shop downtown, at the Methodist Church,” Ames laments. “But it also makes me happy, because I know during those times I won’t amass stuff that I’ll have to ferret or give away.” Meanwhile, he can incorporate his cavalcade of secondhand puppets into Hope for the Holidays? “I’ve collected, like, 100 puppets over the years,” Ames says, “and I better start using them or people will be, like, ‘Why does this old gay man have 100 puppets?’”
Ames will have to stay away from the consignment shops longer than he might like — he’s already booked through most of next year and some of 2010. In spring 2009 he’ll play the father of a 16-year-old in David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Kimberly Akimbo. But since his teenage stage daughter is afflicted with the rapid-aging syndrome progeria, she’ll be played by a suitably weathered performer. “I knew sooner or later I’d be playing people’s fathers, but not the father of a sixtysomething actress!” he exclaims.
Ames does what he can to disappear on stage, but with looks described by some critics as “Christ-like” and a unique, made-for-radio voice, he can’t help but be a recognizable presence. Lopez calls Ames a “director’s actor,” adding, “He’ll take direction but also question and challenge you — but ultimately say, ‘You’re the director, you have the greater picture in view.’”
Ames says he’s amazed that “I keep getting offered these plum roles. Offered! I don’t even need to go to auditions. I’m not the biggest fish. I’m not Rusty DeWees by any means, but I also play more than one character. But I’m a bigger fish here than I would be in New York.”
Lopez disagrees: “He loves Vermont. With his talents, he could probably go to a bigger market and have a lot of success there.”
It was to New York that Ames headed after high school, where he worked as a temp and auditioned nonstop. When his big break failed to materialize, he chose to sharpen his theatrical skills at St. Michael’s College. Though the New Hampshire-bred actor has occasionally left Vermont for roles since then, he opines, “If I’m going to be a poor actor, which I would be in New York or L.A., then I’ll do it in a place I want to be. I think there’s a great energy in Burlington.”
Ames has used his acting skills in some unlikely settings. In 2001, after losing a prop-design job, he took a third-shift position at the North American Family Institute Group Home in Winooski, where he provided overnight care to troubled adolescents. His third week on the job, a woman entered with a gun, saying she planned to kill first her son’s stepmother — who was scheduled to visit that night — and then herself. She explained to the frightened staff that Jesus had told her if she killed herself she could be with her son 24 hours a day in spirit. She rationalized that God would forgive her for the murder “because the Psalms say it’s OK to kill our enemies,” adds Ames. “How do you define enemy? Is it the McDonald’s clerk who didn’t give you enough cream?”
Ames believes the woman came to the group home hoping on some level that the attendant psychologists could counsel her out of her plan. Always acting, he told the woman God was talking through him. He admits, “I’m not trained, but I acted like a counselor. The way the situation turned out, I knew there had been divine intervention.” That night, Ames promised his captor he would continue to care for her. He later petitioned to remove his name from the victims’ list so he could visit her in prison.
Though the woman’s violence was defused, “I developed some post-traumatic stress,” Ames says. “My body has wanted to stay up third shift for years now, because that’s when I worked those eight months following the incident. I started making all these little collages at that place, up late at night.” He gestures toward the walls, which are covered with the faces of actors clipped from entertainment magazines. Some collages focus on specific actors, such as Ames’ favorites, Elizabeth Montgomery and his inspiration, Jimmy Stewart. Others are deceased performers from the covers of People Magazine or Entertainment Weekly’s “Hot List.”
Ames credits his own religious background with giving him empathy to reach the armed woman during the hostage situation. “I’m a recovered Cat-holic. I like to say it as the disease it is,” he says.
The golden rule figures strongly into Ames’ outlook, but he chafes at organized religion’s discrimination. He elaborates: “An actor has to act and take action and react. So I had to become an activist.” Animal rights are a pet cause. “I call myself St. Francis the Sissy,” he teases. “I have been a vegetarian since 1995. Roadkill makes me cry. When I look at it, I have a flash of the animal’s experience.”
It is litter, however, that merits his most ardent attention — a passion he attributes to being born soon after the first-ever Green Up Day, in 1970. “My sore knees and back keep me from picking up as much litter, but I talk about it all the time,” Ames says. In New York, he adds sadly, “They litter in the broad daylight there, right in front of you. Here, people are a little more discreet.”
As the interview ends, Ames checks the TV for his favorite program. “I’m an old queer who knows when ‘The Golden Girls’ are on.” Offhandedly, he wonders, “What do people do when it’s not on on the weekends?”
Whether you know him as Santa or serious actor or campy packrat, Ames is in Burlington to stay, shop and create. Unless, of course, his wry holiday memoir play catapults him to the fame of another former member of Santa’s workshop who made good: David Sedaris.