For someone who has starred in several TV shows and on Broadway in classics, including “Damn Yankees” and his most recent tour with “Wicked,” it wouldn’t seem at all surprising that actor John Bolton would be a name-dropper.
Yet, the names were all so locally familiar: Ben Mancuso, Don Iwanicki, Wanda Frank, Linda Blanchet.
Bolton, who first dipped his toe in the theater waters by moving sets in a Batavia Rotary show, just kept walking in -- from ankle to calf to knee, as he put it -- until he’s been fully immersed — and successfully so — making a living as an affable and prolific actor while enjoying his life in midtown Manhattan.
His first 10 years growing up were in Rochester, followed by living in Le Roy.
"Because my dad's job was out here and was here until sophomore year of college. I went to GCC for first-year college, graduated from Le Roy High School and then went to St. John Fisher, which is now St. John Fisher University for Journalism,” Bolton said during an interview with The Batavian on the new stage-in-progress at Theater 56.
“And once a year, my dad's company would have a thing in New York, and we would see a Broadway show, he would get to bring my mom and me. And occasionally, I could drag a lot of friends, and we would see a Broadway show as part of the trip to New York. And it was my introduction to it, and there was no other theater in Le Roy … but eight miles down the road, there was Batavia Players doing two shows a year and Batavia Rotary doing a big Broadway scale musical with a full orchestra and big sets and costumes and great, amazing, talented performers. And so I sort of dove into that.”
And dove he did. Bolton saved the playbills, memorized the names, and, as a senior in high school, learned how connections can get you places. In his case, his dad knew a Rotary director and mentioned that John “would love to become a part of the show.” So, Ben Mancuso, well known for his boisterous lead in “Fiddler on the Roof” and many other Rotary performances, asked if the young Bolton would want to move sets.
“So I moved sets for Batavia Players’ production of ‘Bells are Ringing,’ and I thought I'd hit the big time. I would kneel offstage and just watch shows. So, because I was a senior in high school, I turned 17, my senior year, and kneeling in the wings, waiting for my cue to come out and move this massive set. And I would just get so lost in these amazing local performers, who to me were just stars … they did full-scale Golden Age musicals, ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ‘King and I,’ and I knew Ben Mancuso.
"So that was like knowing a star because he was Tevye. And I remember being at the mall here and saying to my mom, ‘Look, it's the king. And it was Don Iwanicki who played the king in The King and I, and these were stars to me," Boltons said. "And then all of a sudden, I'm working with them, and not calling them Mr. Mancuso or Mr. Iwanicki, I’m beginning to call them Don and Ben. It was just such a great, great crew of talented welcoming adults.”
Fast forward a bit from this awestruck teenager to a star on Broadway and TV in his own right, having played Horace Vandergelder in “Hello, Dolly!” in 17 cities across the country; completing a two-year run as Vlad in Broadway’s “Anastasia” and in the original cast of the three Tony Award-winning Best Musicals: “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Contact,” and “Titanic.”
He played alongside Jerry Lewis in “Damn Yankees” and received impressive nominations for his acting and dancing talents, capturing three Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical awards for his roles in “Anastasia,” and “A Christmas Story.” As for his television credits, Bolton has been on “Madam Secretary,” “Blue Bloods,” “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” “The Good Wife,” “Gossip Girl” and others, plus he headlined for the NY Pops and NY Philharmonic.
So it’s safe to say that he can do more than move sets. He made great friends and mentors of sorts during those virgin theater years, and was proud to be part of a show, he said.
“And I went from moving the set, I did props for a show. And then I was in one, and then I was in the one the next summer, and in between, I'm in the Rotary shows, and I just felt like I'd hit the big time. I'd never considered it as a career. It was just like something I love to do. And once I was at Fisher, I really dove into Rochester community theater, Pittsford musicals, Brighton Theatre Guild, Webster Theatre Guild, Geva Theater would hire me for small roles, and I got my equity card there a few years later, and then it became an option of well, maybe I move to New York and or at least visit New York and audition and see how it goes,” he said. “And I booked a summer gig, a summer theatre gig in the Atlantic near Atlantic City. And that led to working with a director that led to working with who recommended me for another show who read, then someone in that show recommended me for this show where an agent saw me, so one thing just sort of led to another in a freakishly lucky, wonderful serendipitous way, and now it's 40 years later.”
What brought him to Batavia?
Bolton was invited to stop into a fundraising event for Batavia Players if he happened to be in the area. He knows a lot of people and stayed with some friends in Stafford for a few days and then went to Rochester to visit with his brother. In between, he made a stop for the fundraiser event, and returned to teach a master actors class and for an interview with The Batavian.
So what does he teach actors that are just dipping their toes in the water?
"I would tell them to follow your heart. As long as it's something you love, it has become much more of a viable career. There are many, many good universities that offer degrees. And if you don't wind up on stage, there are so many positions to be in, from producing, to designing, to musicians, to publicity to agents to managers, that it's a huge industry, and it is based right here in New York State,” he said.
If he hasn’t made it clear enough yet, Bolton has a warm feeling about community theater, from how it draws in folks you may not otherwise connect to the stage — “Look, the history teacher can sing, the dentist can design sets, look, your babysitter is an amazing dancer,” he said as examples.
“It’s just that’s what community theater is. And you’re all working for one thing, and you usually put on a very good show,” he said. “And the behind-the-scenes is just as important. And they're having a blast, and we'd all go on about that. We'd go out for drinks at Sunny's afterward, and it was all just family and no judgments. And everyone's welcome. And I was just this kid being welcomed, and just discovering a new family and a new thing I love to do
"It's the best team sport. I grew up around team sports, and I was like, Oh no, this is a team sport. It takes athleticism and cooperation and plans and, you know, respect for each other and camaraderie,” he said.
What has been his favorite role so far?
“I always say my favorite role is the next one. What has surprised me the most is, and then I'm so proud of myself as longevity that I'm still here and that they're still calling me to do this. And I'm like, okay, and TV's calling me more and more. That's something I never thought I'd do," he said. "The residuals that resulted from that really got us through a lot of COVID, you know, because people were locked in their homes, and all of a sudden they're streaming my seven episodes of this show or that six episodes of that show, and all of a sudden the checks are coming in. It's like, thank you, people. Thank you, TV."
And what does it take to get those recurring calls for roles?
When he performed in "Damn Yankees," he worked with "great stars Victor Garber, Bebe Neuwirth and Jerry Lewis," who knew everyone's names the first day of rehearsal. That was like "Wow," he said.
"I'm part of this, I get to be one of the guys up here. And I think that was a moment where I was like, I'm in a Broadway show. I'm so lucky right now. And I teach my students this: being talented and lucky, extremely lucky, will get you hired. Being talented and nice to work with will keep you hired. Because work begets work. If you are good to work with, they'll remember you, and they'll call you in for this."
He seems comfortably settled into Manhattan, living with partner Sean McKnight, tending to a garden and enjoying his dogs during those precious free moments in between gigs. Bolton just shot a TV show that, by contract, he could not disclose, he said. Boo. It would be fun to see him after he graced Batavia with a visit, so keep your eyes open.
He remembers his early years fondly.
“And with such affection, that I came here to do this, and because I'm such a believer in community theater. We're not all going to go into this industry, but it's a great outlet,” he said. “And look at the best of the greatest cities in the world: New York, Chicago, Paris, London, they're loaded with the arts. The arts are a key part to the success of any city, and even the city the size of Batavia, and let's bring it back."
Broadway and TV actor John Bolton talks about his career, growing up in Genesee County from age 10 until he went to college, his memories of Batavia Players and Rotary shows, and what he shares with novice actors looking for success in the industry during an exclusive interview with The Batavian. Photos by Howard Owens.