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Michael Siracuse’s enthusiasm for Riverwalk Theatre seems to light up the night — stage craft that is obvious to many patrons.
“Their impression of Riverwalk Theatre is often based on their interactions with Mike,” said founding member Tom Ferris. “Mike’s dedication to Riverwalk is obvious to them. They get excited because he is excited.”
Siracuse, 62, has been the ringmaster of the building’s multiple rehearsal sites and black box theatre for 22 years. He’s in charge of schedules, crew, talent and office duties. But if you ask him about the job, he says his first concern is customer service.
“Most of my time is spent with people coming in to chat,” Siracuse said, adding he knows “about 80 percent” of regular customers by name.
When reminiscing about patrons who have passed, Siracuse is visibly moved. Wiping away tears he said simply, “I get choked up.”
Before he became the theater manager at Riverwalk, Siracuse worked for a variety of hotels for 17 years. He started at a Hampton in his hometown of Buffalo, NY That led to promotions and hotel positions in Illinois, Kentucky, Niagara Falls and at one of Lansing’s Holiday Inns.
Siracuse’s hotel experience seemed like the perfect preparation for the Riverwalk job.
“Every skill for this position I already had,” he said. That included his philosophies of “the customer is always right” and “always be smiling.” He answered an ad by Riverwalk Theatre and was promptly given the position.
“They picked the right man for the job,” said local musician Tom Heideman, who had also applied for the job.
But there were facets of the job that rendered Siracuse’s hotel skills useless. “I’d never heard of ‘strike,’ except for unions going on strike,” Siracuse admitted. “I didn’t know any of the theater terms.” Strike —as in “strike the set” — means tearing down a set after the final performance.
Learning the lingo was easier than remaining in a hotel career where Siracuse often faced angry customers and workers, even if it meant a $10,000 pay cut. “It was a pleasure going to work. People were happy,” Siracuse said. “I feel like I’m the host of my own party. It’s not like working.”
His tenure has put him close to wellknown names in local theater. One of his favorite experiences was working with director Jane Falion on “1776” for Riverwalk in 2007. But Siracuse found her meticulous process somewhat maddening.
“She drove me nuts,” Siracuse confessed. “She asked so many questions, but her attention to detail made the play successful, so all her sins are forgiven.”
That strain of perfectionism may pertain to Siracuse himself, says Jane Shipley Zussman, an actress and newsletter writer who has worked with Siracuse for 17 years. “He can be notoriously and hilariously cranky with us insiders,” she said.
“That’s because he cares so much and knows so much about how things work and sometimes don’t work.”
Now in his later years, Siracuse has prepared for his inevitable departure by compiling the 50-chapter manual, “How I Did It. It” includes pictures and extensive details of his job. “It took me about two months,” Siracuse said.
Riverwalk Theatre Founder and children’s director Leonore Helder dreads the day he might retire. “He’s the face of Riverwalk,” Helder said. “The Theatre is as much his as anybody else’s. I can’t imagine Riverwalk without him.”
With all his time in the theater, Siracuse has managed to spend only a small amount of time onstage. He portrayed a rude ticket taker in “The Road to Bountiful,” but his turn as a horse in “Equus” removed hope for any future appearances. When he was called to the lobby during rehearsals and couldn’t remove the hooves, the moment proved to be too much. “I was up on wooden blocks,” Siracuse said. “I was embarrassed.”
With all the ups and downs of his job, Siracuse still manages to find the humor in things. “Thank God I work in a theater,” Siracuse admitted, “because everything is drama around here and I’m the most dramatic!”