Longtime actor to portray Churchill in one-man show SanTan Sun News

Longtime actor to portray Churchill in one-man show

Longtime actor to portray Churchill in one-man show
Arts
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By Colleen Sparks

Managing Editor

 

When Randy Otto heard his professor speaking in a perfect imitation of the legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill years ago during a class in college, it lit a fire inside the acting student.

Otto is still passionate about portraying the British statesman, orator, author and prime minister known for rallying the British people during World War II.

He will take his act to the stage, starring in the one-man show, “Winston Churchill: The Blitz” at 3 p.m. Feb. 17 at Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N. Arizona Ave.

Otto, 66, who lives in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, has been playing the role of Churchill for 45 years in theaters, corporate venues and Rotary Club meetings around the country and in England.

He fondly remembered his late history professor, Dr. Maxwell P. Schoenfeld, who taught a British history class Otto was taking while he was an acting student at University of Wisconsin. Otto later earned his bachelor’s degree in acting.

“My British history professor was a genius,” Otto said. “He was a Churchillian scholar. I fell in love with his teaching style. He was able to mimic Winston in class perfectly. When you’re an actor, you admire a good impersonation. I decided to impersonate him impersonating Churchill in front of students after class. They were all laughing.”

He said then the students stopped laughing and he realized Schoenfeld had walked up behind him.

“I thought he was going to flunk me,” Otto said. “He became a mentor for life.”

He even named his oldest son, Maxwell, after his late professor. Otto, who also works as a stockbroker, said his first performance in the character of Churchill was at a Rotary Club in Wisconsin.

He said he “perfected” his act at Rotary Clubs and nursing homes but was “having a difficult time taking my Churchill to the next level.”

So about 13 years ago he met with Hal Holbrook, the actor who played Mark Twain for many decades, after Holbrook performed at Southern Illinois University.

“I contacted Hal out of the blue,” Otto said.

He and Holbrook spoke to each other in character, with Holbrook personifying Twain and Otto playing the role of Churchill, during that first meeting 13 years ago. Churchill and Twain had actually met each other in 1900, Otto said.

“Hal gave me the best advice,” he said. “He said, ‘We both know we can act.’ He said, ‘It’s obvious you know your subject matter.’ He said, ‘Just tell the stories and string them together with segues and you’ll be doing this when you’re my age.’”

In his “Winston Churchill: The Blitz,” Otto concentrates on Churchill from the time he becomes prime minister in 1940 through the Blitz bombing of London and other British cities by the Nazi Germans in 1941.

He also provides background about Churchill growing up. Otto described the style of acting as like Oreo cookies in that one half is a story, the other half is a story, and the cream filling in between is the segue, which can be “humorous, poignant, something to connect two stories” and move the narrative forward.

Otto has performed his one-man Churchill show in old and modern theaters at universities and cities around the country.

He also performed it at Chartwell, a country house in England where Churchill had lived for many years, and at the University of Cambridge. Otto might take his act to Germany in the future.

He said after each performance in England, he asked the British audience members, “How badly did I murder the English language?”

“They all tell me I was perfect,” Otto quipped.

He said they did offer some criticism and some things are “colloquial” to certain areas of England. Otto said “it’s a learning process” and he learns something new about Churchill every time he performs.

Besides performing theatrical shows acting as Churchill, Otto also provides inspirational and corporate speaking, using Churchill’s life and words to motivate listeners.

Otto said he admires “many, many things” about Churchill.

“I think it’s just that he never gave in,” he said. “He had so much against him in life, so much criticism. Many times he shot himself in the foot, but he always came back. He always, always found a way to persist.

“He was magnanimous. He never held a grudge, (was) very forgiving. He was the kind of person who never burned a bridge. When he became prime minister in 1940, he chose his fiercest enemies to be in his war cabinet. Many people hold him as one of the great orators of all time and of course I’d have to agree with that. He delivered his speeches in iambic pentameter, like a Shakespearian speech.”

In his performances, Otto said he tries to reveal to audiences the public and private sides of Churchill.

He will portray Churchill standing on a rooftop in London during the bombings in London during World War II – something Churchill did to experience what the people were experiencing – in the Chandler performance.

“The concept is Churchill believed you can’t lead from a bunker,” Otto said. “To see where the worst of the bombing was… he went to the top of the roof. He believed in being with the people.”

Otto said Churchill’s family members – grandchildren and great-grandchildren – have endorsed him and he is also very active with The National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri.

This will be Otto’s first performance at Chandler Center for the Arts and first time in Arizona.

“The people at the Chandler have been more than welcoming,” he said. “They’ve been fantastic. I’m very much looking forward to my time in the greater Phoenix area.”

Information: chandlercenter.org

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