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Frank McClain leaves Orlando to become artistic director of Dubuque’s Grand Opera House



Orlando is such a transient town that it's impossible to mark every exit, but attention must be paid when a pillar of our performing arts community like Frank McClain says farewell after 25 years. A regional actor, director, singer and arts administrator since 1990 (and also – full disclosure – my landlord), McClain moved to Tampa a couple of years ago, but remained active in local productions. Now he's relocating to his home state of Iowa to become executive and artistic director of Dubuque's Grand Opera House, and taking a quarter-century of memories with him.

"I was a gypsy actor and had worked at a Naples [Florida] dinner theater," McClain told me during a recent farewell brunch in his honor. "Universal Studios was opening up and it was like, let's go to Orlando, never knowing that it would be the place I'd wind up staying. Because up to that point I'd never stayed anywhere for longer than seven or eight months." He worked a range of gigs, from Universal's Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theatre show and the musical Bergamo's Italian Restaurant to "a ton of children's shows" at the Civic Theatre, before beginning work with the now-defunct Orlando Opera, which he eventually directed. "It was never on my agenda to become an opera singer, but I could sing arias. When I started to work at Orlando Opera was the first time I was exposed to opera."

His final regional show was Florida Opera Theatre's production of Mozart's Così Fan Tutte, and he said that being one of the first locals to direct at the new Dr. Phillips Center "felt like the fulfillment of so much. The art center has been talked about since I moved here, so to be able to do a show there before I depart is really great."

After a brief sojourn to New York City, McClain was lured back to Orlando to play Judge Frollo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame musical at Disney-MGM Studios. "The funny thing is I auditioned for Disney seven or eight times while I lived here, and then I auditioned one time in New York. ... They just videotaped me singing a song, didn't say anything, and two weeks later I get a call to come down and play Frollo," McClain recalled. "It was a good time during my life. I was in my late 30s and I'd never had a job before that had paid vacations and benefits [and] I could still do all kinds of theater at night." An initial six-month contract turned into five years with the well-remembered show. "It was such a good gig, and such a fun show to do. ... About a year and a half in I just said, 'Well, I'm riding this train until it ends, because I know it's not going to last forever.'"

Outside the parks, McClain had a hand in countless hit local theater productions, many with playwright-producer Michael Wanzie, with whom he first collaborated on the original 1995 staging of Lizzie Borden: A Musical Tragedy in Two Axe at Theatre Downtown. Wanzie (who spoke to me while swimming fully clothed) praises McClain's versatility, saying, "He's one of the most well-rounded people; he does know how to direct, how to sing, how to act. He can do drama as well as comedy." As an actor, McClain says he's most proud of his work as a guest artist in UCF's Kentucky Cycle; as a director, Why We Have a Body at Stage Left, the small theater he ran on Virginia Drive. But, "No matter what, Mr. Charles is what people will always remember me for, which is great," said McClain, referring to the flamboyant Paul Rudnick character he played at the Orlando Fringe and Parliament House. "There's pre-Mr. Charles and post-Mr. Charles, for people's opinion of me: 'I didn't know you could be so funny.'"

Though McClain enjoyed being managing director at Opera Tampa and is excited to be returning to his "first love" of musical theater in a vintage venue in a city where he's got family, he's clear on what he'll miss most about Orlando: "The people. My friends, the community. I don't think people realize what a thriving arts town [Orlando] is, how many ridiculously talented people live in this town."

According to Wanzie, with McClain's departure Orlando is losing "a really sweet spirit in a community of people that can sometimes be jealous and vicious. ... He has never been involved with or at the center of any type of drama whatsoever. ... No matter what the project, he's genuinely a good guy to be around, a good energy."

Will McClain be back? "Never say never," he smiles. "I can't imagine that I'll ever be away for too long. I'll be visiting."

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