Hamilton Rutledge was a perfect example of someone discovering a love of theater through Island Players. Over the years he has been in many great plays in a variety of roles. When asked for any standouts, he shared some of his memories.
Ham had spent formative years on the island when his parents lived here, but had been away most of his adult life. Only when he and his wife, Chari, retired and moved back to the island in 2004 did he start to get reconnected to island life. In 2005 Dave Ranney was looking for someone to play a gruff and grumpy domineering father, and decided to ask Ham if he would be interested. Ham hemmed and hawed, but agreed to at least meet and look over the part. When Dave went over to Ham’s house, Chari opened the door for Dave and said, “Are you out of your mind?!” Daughter Carrie said to Ham, “What are you going to play…a tree stump?” Ham had never been in a play before, and not even done much public speaking. The closest he had come to acting was when he was a child. “As a kid I read a lot. Mom would then ask me to be a character from the book I was reading. We did that for years.” He knew that his sister, Joan Blair, had been in an Island Players play and liked it. Ham also thought it might be a way to start to get to know more people on the island. So he said yes to Dave, and acted in his first play, ‘Visit To A Small Planet’. It was to be the first of 26 plays to date that he has acted in!
Over the years he has been in many great plays in a variety of roles. When asked which ones for him stand out and/or were favorites, he started naming a few:
In 2007 he was in ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’: “That was a tough role; I was playing a nasty son-of-a-bitch. During the work on the play I kept thinking of the real children who had lived in hiding and what they had been through.”
In 2008 he was in ‘Oliver!’, which turned out be a huge hit. He played the role of a doctor, while wearing his father’s old stethoscope. It was a huge cast (26), with music, singing, dancing, and had sold-out audiences at the TPAC.
In 2009 Ham was in ‘I Hate Hamlet’ which turned out to be one of his all-time favorite plays. He played the role of the ghost of John Barrymore, one of theater’s legendary great actors. The role called for Ham to sword fight with Steve Reiss, so Ham went to Milwaukee and took sword fighting lessons. Mostly, Ham remembers how much fun it was to be in that play. “The lines in the play are so funny, the cast had a hard time not cracking up all the time.” And what a cast: besides Ham and Steve, there was also Cindra Hokkanen,Rylee Johnson, Charlotte Manning and Jim Sorensen. Theater fun!
In 2010 Ham was in two plays. In ‘Painting Churches’ he played a character who is beginning to have dementia. “My kids were saying, ‘Oh, he’s a natural for the role.’ “ For the play, Island artist John Davies painted a portrait of Ham and his ‘wife’ Joyce Morehouse that still hangs in the entrance of the TPAC, a fitting tribute to both of them.
Also in 2010 Ham played a very different role as “The Boss” in ‘Of Mice and Men’. The play was performed in the Red Barn, was powerfully done, and is still talked about today.
In 2011 Ham was in ‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder. He played ‘the Stage Manager’ and this turned out to be his all-time favorite role. It was also his most challenging role, with lots to memorize. He was superb in the role. The Stage Manager weaves together the disparate lives of many townspeople, and Ham did so in a conversational, natural way that brought everything together.
2012 found Ham in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’, again in a very different persona. ‘Dr. Einstein’ is an alcoholic plastic surgeon living in terror of his murderous side-kick, played by Jens Hansen. “I was supposed to drink a lot during the play. At one point I took a swig from a prop bottle that was supposed to be full of tea, and it was full of whiskey! My eyes bugged out!” Another bonus to that role was being in a play with his sister Joan Blair, who he pranked with the wrong cues.
‘Moon Over Buffalo’ in 2012 saw Ham as a big city lawyer. This was another fun romp with a great cast.
2013 found Ham in another memorable role, that of ‘Alfred Doolittle’ in ‘Pygmalion’. One scene, he was the pugnacious dustman demanding money for his daughter Liza, played by Anna Gibson, and the next he is in top hat and tails, heading off to his wedding. Depending on the performance, he either had blacked-out teeth, or a shinney gold tooth.
‘The Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen was another tribute to Ham’s versatility as an actor. He played the role of Nils Krogstad. Ham said, “Krogstad goes through a whole range of emotions in a very short time: vengeful, depressed, furious, elated, from slimy blackmailer to nice guy. A fascinating role.”
Ham played the role of ‘The Writer’ in the play ‘The Good Doctor’ in 2015. He was the narrator, weaving together a series of 12 dramatic stories written by Anton Chekhov.
2016 Ham was part of the ensemble of actors presenting ‘Dear Rhoda’, the original play written by Donna Russell and Dave Ranney.
2017 brought another original drama to the TPAC stage, this time ‘The Islanders’ written by Gayle Johnson. Ham, as Joel Westbrook, helped bring aspects of Island history and its’ drama to life.
In all, 26 stage plays, plus many other Center Stage involvements, Christmas shows, play readings, being a Master of Ceremony for many Island events…Ham has been a very active performer. He recounted with a twinkle in his eye, “And this last summer, at the age of 86, I had my first singing role.” He was in Donna Russell’s TPAC show in the role of a German soldier, singing in German “Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht.”