Jim Matusik, one of Fort Wayne’s most respected and accomplished actors, got his start onstage as so many have: in drag.
He was a junior in high school in Hillsdale, Michigan, and on a whim he auditioned for his high school production of The Pink Panther Strikes Again. He was cast as a butler who is also a female impersonator.
Did the teenage Matusik know he was auditioning for a role that would put him in a dress, makeup and high heels?
“Negative,” he says. “I only auditioned because I thought it would be a good way to be around girls but not actually have to talk to them. I found them a bit intimidating.”
After a pause, he adds, “I still do.”
He admits to having been embarrassed at first, “but then I realized, ‘The girls are laughing. They think it’s hilarious.’ So I just went for it.”
His courage paid off. His friends came to see the show, and rather than making fun of him they told him how funny his performance had been and that he seemed to be having a lot of fun onstage.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, I guess I was having fun!” he recalls.
Later that year he auditioned for a production of Arsenic and Old Lace at the tiny Sauk Theatre down the road from him. “After having to wear a pink dress and heels while lip-syncing to a Streisand song,” he says, “I figured everything else was a breeze after that.”
He won the role of Officer Brophy and has since done the show two more times, each time in a different role. “This is the show I keep coming back to,” he says. “My goal is to do all the male characters at some point.”
After high school, he studied biology at the Michigan Technological University in Houghton. “It was in the Upper Peninsula,” he says. “There was nothing but snow and snow.”
Although MTU didn’t have a theatre program while he was there, it did have one theatre teacher who put on shows and formed an improv group that Matusik was a part of. He says that college is the perfect time to learn theatre.
“You have no reservations,” he explains. “When you’re still in high school, you have reservations because you’re trying to fit in. Then when you graduate college and enter the real world, you get reservations again. ‘What, I have to be mature? But when you’re a college kid, it’s easy to throw it all out there.”
The improv also helped him build characters. Five years ago, he and Jim Nelson played a combination of 40 characters in Arena Dinner Theatre’s A Tuna Christmas.
“That was a blast,” Matusik says. “Christopher J. Murphy directed that show, and he had a lot of input into the characters. Some were [written] as pretty stereotypical, but we tried to move beyond the stereotype. One of the characters I played was inspired by Marge Simpson’s sisters.”
Although he didn’t come from a theatre background, his family still supported him.
“I came from a long line of hunters,” he says. “They didn’t understand my love of theatre.”
Nevertheless, his family attended as many of his productions as they could until his father passed away two years ago.
Meanwhile, he has developed a theatre family of his own. “My wife Anna has been in several shows,” he says. “Brad and Leslie Beauchamp are my in-laws. And my daughter wants to join Fort Wayne Youtheatre.”
Matusik met Anna Wood at an Arena Dinner Theatre audition for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He was cast as Charlie Brown, and she was cast as Lucy. But his shyness with women overtook him. “I guess it was love at first sight,” he says, “but she asked me out first.”
They now have a seven-year-old daughter, Katie, who is also interested in theatre.
“She comes to rehearsals with me,” he says, “and she loves to play around backstage. Everyone loves having her around. She’s still a bit shy when it comes to actually speaking onstage, but she wants to get over that. I think that’s pretty cool for a seven-year-old to want to face her fears.”
Although he earned his degree in biology and has vast theatrical experience, he earns his pay as an annuity case manager for Ash Brokerage, processing applications and working with agents to ensure the best service for his customers. However, he still manages once a year to put his theatrical background to use at the office.
“Every Halloween we have a costume contest,” he says. “For the last three years I’ve taken it to a new level. Last year we sang a parody of an Eagles song. One guy played the guitar and we sang. Costumes? That’s grade school! We perform!”
He also earns spare cash appearing in local commercials and industrial videos. “I did a commercial for Bart’s Cars about seven years ago,” he says. “They play it every year during football season. I am recognized for that all the time on the street.”
But his real passion is the stage. He has worked with every major theatre group in town and says he lost count at 50 productions. Two of his favorites are Death of a Salesman (which starred the late Wayne Schaltenbrand) and The Producers.
But he is particularly proud of his recent role as Atticus Finch in the University of St. Francis production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Directed by his brother-in-law Brad Beauchamp, it’s a show that “everyone needs to see every now and again or at least re-familiarize themselves with,” he says.
“The greatest reward [of a role like that],” he says, “is the palpable feeling you get when you know that an audience is connected with you while you’re performing. You can actually feel them joining you on the journey of exploring the story that you are telling. There’s really no other feeling like it.”
He was especially proud of a letter he received from the legendary Harvey Cocks following the production. “I know Harvey writes a lot of letters to a lot of people,” he says modestly. “But his letter meant so much to me. He said my Atticus was ‘idealistic but not bombastic,’ and that was so great because Brad and I worked hard to keep him simple and truthful, not to hit the audience over the head with the message. And then the letter said – I remember the exact words – ‘Your courtroom performance made this old man cry.’”
His current role, however, is a complete 180-degree departure from such a heavy-hitting, emotionally charged show.
The Fox on the Fairway, Ken Ludwig’s new play about love on the golf course, which runs September 6-21 at First Presbyterian Theater, is “one of those great farces that just take off from the word go,” he says. “Between the non-stop action and the jokes, it’s a great ride. Plus, [director Christopher J.] Murphy has put together a great cast that runs like a well-oiled machine. It’s a great joy to be able to work with people that you can implicitly trust at all times.”
The show has not been without its challenges, however. “I have a confession,” he quips. “I’m not much of a golfer.”