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Former Race Caller Tom Durkin on New Stage

Tom Durkin Acting on stageFifteeen months into retirement, Tom Durkin returns to a different–though familiar–form of live entertainment Friday in the opening night presentation of Miracle on 34th Street in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

As a Communication Arts major focused on drama at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI., Durkin appeared in 17 productions as an undergrad, but his distinguished career as a track announcer precluded work as a actor. Free of the demands of a daily job, he steps back onto the stage for a two-week run, a total of nine performances, in the cast of the Home Made Theater’s family-oriented play.

During the fall, Durkin responded to Home Made Theatre’s on-line notice of an open audition and is part of a cast of 28 for the stage adaptation of the well-known movie. He said that he has been having a blast.

“At least a dozen members of the cast are little kids. Another half dozen are high school kids,” he said. “It’s kind of fun being around them. I’ve really never been around kids that much. It’s just nice to see their energy, their enthusiasm and their personalities. That’s been a real nice part of it.

“And my fellow cast members are all really nice folks.

Interesting and genuine and fun to be with. I’m just enjoying the experience.”

Durkin said there was another reason beyond a love of theater that drew him to the audition for the play.

“I want to become a bona fide member of the Saratoga Springs community, as opposed to summer/snow bird,” he said. “It’s a great way to congregate and co-mingle with your fellow citizens. It’s great.”

This is Durkin’s first acting role since he had a part in Promenade, All! at the Green Bay Community Theater in 1973. He said he could not consider getting involved in a theater group while he was calling races.

“It wasn’t an option,” he said. “I certainly would not have had the time.”

Durkin, 65, retired on the next-to-last day of the 2014 Saratoga meeting after calling Condo Commando’s smashing victory in the GI Spinaway S. He has settled nicely into the next chapter of his life, splitting his time between Saratoga Springs and Florida, doing some promotional work for West Point Thoroughbreds, and pursuing his many interests.

“I love it,” he said. “I think it’s about what I expected. I’m pretty busy. Last year, I probably gave 20 or 30 speeches. During the racing meeting it seemed like every night that I was emceeing some function.

“I have been doing some traveling and went to Italy twice. I’ve been busy but not to the point where I don’t want to be any more or less busy. It’s been hitting all the right notes.”

Durkin participated in some high school productions during his youth in Chicago and got far more serious about the performing arts during his college days. Home Made Theatre, now in its 31st season in Saratoga Springs, stages its performances at the Spa Little Theatre, located in the state park between the Gideon Putnam Resort and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Durkin said he was invited to the audition for Miracle on 34th Street after completing an application.

“I read for a couple of parts that were age and gender appropriate,” he said. “I have three parts. They are relatively small. I think I’m in five or six scenes in the whole show, but they are fun parts.

“My first piece is I play a drunken Santa Claus, which is a lot of fun to do. Any time you can play a drunk on stage it’s pretty good. If you’re Santa Claus and you’re drunk it’s twice as good. Another part I play, not completely against type, is a radio announcer. The biggest of the three parts I play is Mr. Macy, R.H. Macy.”

As far as Durkin can see, the work involved in handling three characters is just about right.

“It’s not an overburdening sort of thing,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t have one of the lead roles because that would have been a little daunting after being away from it for so long.”

As a track announcer, Durkin had to learn and then forget the names of horses and jocks and the silks owners of each race every day. That skill did not help him much in the preparation for the play.

“It’s a different kind of memorization doing your lines, as opposed to memorizing horses’s names,” he said. “You’d have thought it would been an easy transition, but it just took me a little while to get the hang of it.”

Durkin spent the final 24 years of his career as the track announcer for the New York Racing Association and is a well-known, beloved figure in the Saratoga Springs region. His retirement, which included a ceremony in the winner’s circle, was an emotional high point of the 2014 season. As a result, his involvement has brought some added attention to the play by a company that already has a great deal of respect in the marketplace.

“I was really surprised at the level of professionalism involved here, the directors and the lighting technicians and the sound technicians and stage and scenery builders. It’s really first rate,” he said. “Don’t let the name community theater fool you. We’ve got a proper theater. The stage is a proper stage that can fly in scenery. It’s pretty involved and it’s far different than the last community theater play I was in. But the pay is the same.”

Durkin laughed as he delivered his punch line. He is pleased with the life he is living away from the stress that was part of his career, pointing out that he has lost weight and is much more focused on his health than he was as a guy with binoculars and a microphone.

“It’s all good,” he said, chuckling. “I walk around with a Fitbit, not a Rolex.”

For more information on Home Made Theatre’s production of Miracle on 34th Street, click here.




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