The animated Sam Wright

The "Little Mermaid" star follows his dreams to Walden

Author: Anita Manley
Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2007

If you don’t believe that enthusiasm is contagious, spend a couple of hours with Sam Wright.

Wright’s warm and welcoming smile, his description of how he attained his dream, and his zeal for sharing his passion all make for an exuberant combination in one very personable human being—who is best known by our children and grandchildren as the voice of Sebastian the Crab from Walt Disney’s classic, “The Little Mermaid”.

Hudson Valley can now claim as its own this actor, performer and teacher who began his life in a small town in South Carolina and now graces Orange County with his presence.

Wright says that growing up, he didn’t know he wanted to be an actor.

“I went to church a lot,” he said. “I saw the guy up there influencing people and I was impressed with this.”

He also enjoyed going to the movies and remembers seeing people crying after watching “A Man Called Peter,” the touching story of a man who rose from his rough childhood in Scotland to become a beloved Presbyterian minister and US Senate Chaplain.

“It hit me,” he said. “This man was making people cry. I wanted to be a preacher like him.”

And so, at the age of seven, Wright began preaching in his own church and saw that he too was moving his audience.

“I said to the pastor, ‘when do I get paid?’ He told me ‘we pass the plate.’ I told the pastor ‘this is no way to make a living!’” he said.

“My pastor said ‘you want to be an actor, not a preacher’”.

Later, fate intervened when a doctor in the town encouraged Wright to audition for a community theater production of “Annie Get Your Gun.” Wright was cast as Sitting Bull.

Wright continued to act in high school and played football well enough to earn a college scholarship. While in college, he spotted a sign advertising auditions for a school play. He got the role and was again bitten by the theater bug.

“I became a maverick,” he said. “I didn’t go to classes. I just spent my time in the library reading books on the theater. The President called me into his office and told me I had to turn in my paperwork, but I could put together my own curriculum and study theater.”

The determined Wright formed his own theater group and was invited to the Yale Drama Festival where he met an English and theater teacher from CW Post College in Long Island who invited him to study at his school.

A long bus trip later, Wright landed in New York, called his friend at CW Post and began studying theater after helping to develop a curriculum in theater arts at the college. After a year at Post, he decided to move to the big city and start living his dream, but it wasn’t easy. His theater career took a few sharp turns when he found himself homeless, living on the streets of New York. Ironically, this is where he found encouragement from other homeless people who would lend him enough money to take a bus uptown to audition. His first successful audition in 1969 was a role as a nude statue in a play off Broadway (“way off”, he says). He had no lines.

“The show got terrible reviews,” he said, “but one reviewer said the nude statue was the best acting in the play!”

The good news was Wright was able to live in the basement of the theater, so he had a place to stay. That was fine until the basement got flooded one night and Wright found himself without a home again after the theater was forced to close.

Wright’s next audition was for Jesus Christ Superstar. He actually auditioned 18 times before getting the role.

“I would come dressed in different outfits so they wouldn’t recognize me, but the director would remember me and tell me to leave,” he recalled. “They finally changed directors and he decided to give me a chance.” The show opened in 1970.

Wright was cast as a chorus member, but he soon took over a major role as Simon. He stayed with the show for three years and the door was open. After working in different shows in New York and on tour, he landed the role as the original Mufasa in Lion King where he stayed for six years.

Sebastian the Crab came about when he received a call to audition, but was not told what exactly the role was for.

“I was told to sing and dance like Sammy Davis Jr.”, he said. “I got there and decided to really give it my all. I jumped up on a table and gave them all the energy I had. A year later, they called me and said I was hired for the voice of Sebastian.”

Anyone who is familiar with Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Little Mermaid” knows that there was no Sebastian the Crab in the original tale. In fact, Wright said the character was created by Disney and was originally supposed to be a turtle. After spending nearly two years recording the part for the animated movie, Wright was invited to lunch with the Disney animators. One of the guests at the luncheon was Roy Disney. When the animators finished with their sketch, Disney presented Wright with a picture of Sebastian, a crab with Wright’s face. The rest is history!

As much as he loved acting and working in live theater on Broadway, Wright dreamed of teaching his craft to children. Speaking to college students during his acting career, he encouraged them to bring the theater experience to local communities.

“Broadway has gotten out of hand,” he said. “You pay $100 a person for a ticket to a show, and when you add that to the cost of travel, parking and eating a meal, that’s a lot of money for a family with children.”

Married and living by this time in Rockland County, Wright and his wife Amanda decided to head north and look for a new home. That’s when they discovered Walden.

“Amanda looked around the community, found a house and fell in love with the area”, said Wright. In 1993, the family moved to their new home.

Soon they took the plunge and realized their dream when they opened the Hudson Valley Conservatory of Fine Arts in Walden 12 years ago. They have since expanded the school in a former supermarket and shopping center located on East Main Street. Presently, there are more than 300 students who take classes in dance, jazz, drama, ballet, hip hop, vocals and musical instruments including strings, brass, woodwind, percussion and piano. Private lessons in music, dance and drama are also offered. Classes are offered for children as young as four years old. There are also music and movement classes for toddlers beginning at 18 months old.

Local residents have attended and enjoyed numerous class productions and shows at Wright’s Red Rose Theater at the conservatory.

“Walden is growing,” he said. “We are the only accredited dramatic school in this area.”

Wright points out that he insists that his students keep a grade point average of B or better. “This is not about taking these kids away from their studies,” he said. “They are expected to do their homework and keep up their marks in school.”

Wright says that anyone who wants to become an actor needs to get an education first. “I would tell them to get as much training as possible; get experience in community theater and local groups, but stay in school,” he said. “I tell the kids, whatever dream you have, build it.”

Categories: Profiles

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