Arthur Anderson: Acting is love

by Katelyn Cooper

Arthur Anderson started his acting career in 1934 when he was 12 years old. Anderson was 16 at the time he portrayed one of Charles Dickens’ ghostly trio opposite Orson Welles in the 1938 broadcast of A Christmas Carol. He reprised his original role as the Ghost of Christmas Past in WCU’s re-creation of the broadcast. He is now 88 years old and still passionate about acting and life. Western Carolina Journalist had the privilege of sitting down with him for an interview.

WCJ: You started such a wonderful career at such an early age. You were 12 years old, which is amazing.

AA: Yes, that’s when I got my first money for acting. I became a professional.

WCJ: How did that first begin?

AA: I was born in Staten Island or what was called, “One of the five bars in New York”. Staten Island in the 30’s was not a big city it was a series of little villages. I grew up performing in children’s theatre and playing on local radio stations and I had fun. I’ve always enjoyed acting. A friend of the family came to visit and she knew a producer of a radio station who needed a little boy. The producer was in the hospital recovering from an operation and I went, auditioned, and he hired me for this national network radio program.

I was a little orphan boy named Buddy and I was on that program for ten broadcast or two weeks. The show was, Tony and Gus. I went from Staten Island to Radio City. I’ve always said it was an adventure, you know.

WCJ: Was it hard as a young boy to commute from Staten Island to Manhattan all while still attending school?

AA: A friend of ours let my mother and I use her apartment in Manhattan. I still was in school and I started getting calls from radio directors who had heard me on Tony and Gus. But how do you get from Staten Island to Manhattan? We did not have a car so we would walk to the bus, and then take the ferry, then the subway to Radio City or wherever the program was. It was impossible for a little boy who had to go to school the next day. So my mother said we are moving to New York which meant Grenage Village.

WCJ: How did moving to Manhattan help you juggle your new career and school work?

AA: I went to a special school called the Professional Children’s School. Now, that doesn’t mean they gave us acting lessons. This school was for kids who were already professionals. It was a private school but very inexpensive, it was $100 for the whole year. That’s a little surprising, isn’t it?

I was happy there and I was working mostly on radio. I did many things besides going to school of course, but you couldn’t get away from your school work no matter how much you were doing. We thrived on it, we loved it.

WCJ: How did your career begin to evolve after moving to Manhattan?

AA: In 1937 I worked for Orson Welles in a modern dress version of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Now you should read this, it is one of Shakespeare’s most exciting plays. Orson Welles played Brutus, one of the assassins, and I was his servant boy Lucius.

 We did Julius Caesar in repertory. Now this means that you play one play tonight and you play a different play the next night and the night after tomorrow you may go back to the first play. This is repertory, this is hardly done anymore.

The other play was from the 17th Century and was called The Shoemaker’s Holiday. I was a boy, one of the Shoemakers. It was completely different from Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar was very serious while The Shoemaker’s Holiday was pure fun. I guess you would call it sexy but some of it was just simply funny.

It was very hard work. But actors love it. I’ve always loved acting and I have made my living acting since I was a child and I have never done anything else. I’m what they call a working actor.

WCJ: Did the evolution of television effect or change your work in any way?

AA: The first television show was tried out in 1939. RCA or the Radio Corporation Association owned the national broadcasting at NBC and they wanted to develop television. So I did a few television shows. They were very poorly paid. A lot of the acting was very poorly paid.

We formed the American Federation of Radio Artist or AFRA. This was a union which formed contracts with the broadcasts that said if you want to hire our actors you must pay them so much. That way the actors were protected.

I have made several programs which are shown on the internet and on television. I’ve even been on Comedy Central. People ask me isn’t acting fun? Of course it’s fun but it is work, it is concentrated work.

WCJ: Besides your outstanding work in radio and television, what other career accomplishments have you made?

AA:  I’ve done many things. I did some modeling for magazines. I was the spokesmen for Kuppenheimer men’s clothing. I was Mr. Kuppenheimer, people thought I owned the company so I didn’t tell them no. Sure I own the company. I also wrote a book, An Actor’s Odyssey, Orson Welles to Lucky the Leprechaun. On the back of the book I wrote, Arthur Anderson claims he’s been in every branch of show business except the circus and the grand opera.

I’ve done a lot of interesting things. There’s been many times I wasn’t working and that got a little discouraging, but something always happened. I never worried too much.

WCJ: What has been your favorite role you’ve played?

AA: Yeah, that’s a tough question. It sounds silly to say it but practically every role I’ve played has been my favorite. Every role is a new challenge. Can I do this? Can I get the meaning of what kind of person this is? How can I relate?

I think my favorite role was on the radio. It was an adventure story, Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stephenson. I did this for Orson Welles in 1938 when I was still in my teens. It is a great adventure story, read it sometime it’s a great story. Orson Welles was a villainous pirate, Long John Silver and I was Jim Hawkins who was taken a long on an adventure to find treasure.

But they are all a new challenge, and I have enjoyed every single one of them.

WCJ: You’ve said you have been in every branch of show business except the circus and the grand opera. What have you learned from all your experience?

AA: If you’re an actor once you’re committed to do something, you’ve got to do it. I have found, as you will find in your profession, every job you do, you will learn. Sometimes, and this applies to your work too, you may not realize that you learned something but maybe years later you will say, I think I can do this better. The fascinating part of it is you may not realize why you know how to do something better but something goes on in your brain. It is called experience.

If you enjoy your work, which I hope you will, things add up. There was a philosopher, Coue, and his motto was, “every day in every way I am getting better and better”. It is a nice thought isn’t it?

WCJ: What was it like for you to work with Orson Welles?

AA: Everyone asks me that and of course they do, he was a fascinating man. He was a man of many talents. You see my answer to this would not be somebody else’s answer. The reason for this was that I was a child. He was very kind to me. He scolded the other actors, but not me.

 One of my favorite stories is when we were rehearsing for Julius Caesar far into the night. I was sleeping in one of the back seats of the theatre. Orson saw me there and said, “Go home dear boy”. So I went home. The others, they could not go home. I never forgot that. He could be very harsh with people but not with me. It was again, learning.

WCJ: You played the Ghost of Christmas past in the original 1938 broadcast of A Christmas Carol. Does this re-creation bring back any memories for you?

AA: It brings back very happy memories because it is a lovely story. I was 16 years old, my voice was just changing and I was surprised Orson called me for this part. When people think of ghost they think of old dead people, right? Well you read the description of the ghost and it is a young ghost. These ghosts are different, they are much more interestingly written. The descriptions of the ghosts are weird and wonderful.

I listened to the tape at home from the original broadcast in 1938. I wanted to analyze the way I would do it when I got here but I forgot to do that because I was so hooked by the story. I was the audience, I wasn’t an actor.

WCJ: What kind of advice would you give an aspiring student who wanted to go into the acting industry?

AA: If you are serious about it you should work with other actors and learn from it. My main advice is as you get to work with younger people, maybe you become the best one; if you’re the best one, get out because you won’t learn anything. Have the courage to walk away and keep learning.

WCJ: What was the point where you realized you could make a living off of acting and radio?

AA: That’s a good question. All this time I was living with my mother and my father and I was working radio, television, and stage. I had a stage play, a regular radio show, and commercials. One day I picked up the Village Voice, a weekly newspaper published in Grenage Village and I started looking at apartments for rent. I don’t know how it came over me but that was the point which I said, well, I think I can do this. I found an apartment and the rent was $45 a month. These days you can’t even rent a closet for that in New York City.

But that was the turning point. Now, I don’t remember thinking that to myself then, but some of the most important decisions you will make are not reasonable, they are completely emotional.

WCJ: You became the voice of Lucky the Leprechaun for Lucky Charms cereal for 29 years. How did you get that part?

AA: It was a god sent. I never had a contract with Lucky Charms cereal, they would call and I would record a voice and I never knew when they would call again. It was wonderful. I was not Arthur Anderson, I was a leprechaun.

WCJ: What do you think about WNC?

AA: I think it’s charming. This is another adventure, I love it. I understand that people come here from New York and have summer homes here and I can see why, it’s beautiful.