Twenty-something years ago, when I was 20-something years old, I worked my first full-time job as a lowly events coordinator at Universal Orlando. Even though I had little knowledge and even less experience, there was a senior show director in the entertainment department who always treated me with unreasonable kindness, even though there was no advantage in it for him. I've long known I wasn't the only person whose career was touched by Adrian LePeltier, but I never realized the breadth and depth of his impact on our cultural community until I attended last week's event honoring him, and witnessed the who's-who of actors and theme park veterans filling the Parliament House's Footlight Theatre to pay tribute to him.
Mark Edward Smith, Michael Mormon, Elizabeth Murff, James Keaton and Lisa Curtis are just a few of the local artists who attended An Audience With Adrian LePeltier, the first installment in a series of creative conversations organized and emceed by Adam Graham, artistic director of Red Fish Theatre. The evening, which raised over $1000 for A Better Life Pet Rescue, was billed as a "live and unfiltered" journey through LePeltier's planet-spanning career, and it easily lived up to my X-rated expectations as a politically incorrect, obscenity-laced episode of Inside the Actors Studio the likes of which James Lipton never aired. Aided by a slideshow of vintage family photographs, Graham attempted to steer an eager-to-digress LePeltier through his implausibly exotic life story, beginning with his boyhood in British-ruled India during the 1940s.
"It was a very privileged lifestyle, but very old-fashioned," LePeltier recalls. "It was more Victorian than Victorian England." He was shipped off to a Darjeeling boarding school at age 6 and a half and nearly died on the journey there ("It was shit," he says succinctly), but the all-boys Jesuit school he attended as an adolescent was "like a box of chocolates" to LePeltier, who says he "didn't kick open the closet; I kicked open my mother's womb." After being caught consuming unconsecrated communion wafers and wine (among other indiscretions), LePeltier says his parents were asked to "please remove me from the school because I was ruining the morals of the boys."
LePeltier first appeared on stage at age 6 as a queen. ("They knew at that age.") After briefly attending the University of Missouri and graduating cum laude from California's Pasadena Playhouse School of Theatre Arts, LePeltier launched his performing career dancing in legendary London nightclubs like Talk of the Town. He appeared as Annette Funicello's love interest in an episode of Walt Disney's Zorro – "Oh for God's sake, do something to him, he looks prettier than Annette," LePeltier says the director exclaimed upon seeing him in costume – and once auditioned for Noel Coward, who told him, "You're a little bit too old for me, but you remind me very much of myself when I was a young man."
Various gigs led LePeltier to Hong Kong, Madrid and eventually Nevada, where he was a dancer and company manager for Donn Arden's supersized casino productions in Reno and Las Vegas. That's when his friend Skip Sherman, then senior VP of entertainment for Universal Studios Florida, lured him to Florida with a job directing shows for the theme parks. During his decade-plus in that role, he helped create Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, Mardi Gras and A Day in the Park With Barney. "I understand how it gets very boring," he told the park performers in the audience. "But do you realize that more people see you in a day than see any well-known actor in a Broadway show? It's not about you ... it's all about the audience."
After leaving the company in 2005, LePeltier returned in 2010 as an actor at Ollivanders Wand Shop in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. "They keep calling me Ollivander. I'm not fucking Ollivander! I know I look that old, but I'm not him," he says with a laugh, before explaining what makes playing the proprietor so magical with an anecdote about a nonverbal autistic guest who first spoke during his show.
Outside of Universal, LePeltier has been seen on area stages during the past decade as the Narrator in Red Fish's Rocky Horror Show and as the Godfather (alongside the late Billy Manes as Andy Warhol) in Beth Marshall's Beatnik, among other roles. But his influence is far wider than his credits suggest, as the official letter of appreciation from Mayor Buddy Dyer that was presented to LePeltier at the evening's end eloquently says: "You have dedicated your life to the arts, producing high-quality works around the globe. ... Thank you for helping ensure that the arts thrive in Orlando."