Walter Charles Jacobsen, a longtime resident of Callicoon Center, who rose to celebrity on Broadway in La Cage Aux Folles and as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, passed away …
Walter Charles Jacobsen, a longtime resident of Callicoon Center, who rose to celebrity on Broadway in La Cage Aux Folles and as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, passed away Thursday, August 3, 2023 at a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Born April 4, 1945, he died of complications from Alzheimer’s. He is survived by his wife, Leslie Thompson Jacobsen (m. 2019), and a host of friends and admirers.
One of Mr. Charles’ best known runs on Broadway was in the role of “Albin,” a drag queen in La Cage Aux Folles, a Tony Winning Musical that debuted in 1983 at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. Mr. Charles’ strutted in high heels and boas and brought down the house with his resolute baritone singing of the show’s signature song “I Am What I Am.”
An actor, who like so many others always felt that his most recent show would be his last, he defied the odds and worked solidly from his debut as Vince Fontaine in the first national tour of Grease in 1973 until his final role as the Captain in the Broadway Revival of Anything Goes in 2012. In a career that spanned over 40 years, Mr. Charles also performed on Broadway in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Sweeney Todd, Me and My Girl, Aspects of Love, The Apple Tree, The Woman in White and several other shows. In addition, he starred frequently in theaters around the country in Sunset Boulevard (with Diahann Carroll), South Pacific, Man of La Mancha, Shenandoah, My Fair Lady, and Off-Broadway in Wit (with Kathleen Chalfant), Call Me Madam (with Tyne Daly), Sweeney Todd, and The Immigrant.
Mr. Charles’ rise to celebrity was hardly overnight. Born Walter Charles Jacobsen in East Stroudsburg, PA in 1945 to parents of Norwegian and Danish descent, he went on to study piano and bassoon at Sparta High School in New Jersey. His talent for piano led him to Bucknell University where, after hearing him sing in the school choral group, the music director encouraged him to direct his time to try for a vocal career. This necessitated a move to Boston University and tutelage under the contralto and BU voice faculty member Mary Davenport. Following graduation in 1966, Mr. Charles worked as a singing waiter in dinner theaters and joined choruses on a few bus and truck tours before landing the non-singing role of Vince Fontaine in the first road company of Grease in 1972. He was in good company in that production with other newbies including John Travolta, Jerry Zaks, Marilu Henner, and Judy Kaye. His next job offered even more potential – he was in the ensemble and also the understudy for Len Cariou in the original production of Sweeney Todd. But, after understudying Len Cariou for over a year, he was denied even a single appearance on stage as the demon barber by an indefatigable Mr. Cariou who never missed a performance. On closing night, Mr. Cariou gave him a thank you card saying, “Sorry, Walter.”
Back in the vocal ensemble and with small roles in Leonard Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Mr. Charles concentrated on developing his acting skills with Mary Tarcai of the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. Walter Charles’ big break came after understudying George Hearn on Broadway, in La Cage Aux Folles, where his ringing baritone voice and acting ability impressed writer, Jerry Herman, and director, Arthur Laurents, enough to give him a major career lift by giving him the lead role of Albin when Mr. Hearn left the show. Glowing notices and enthusiastic audiences confirmed their decision. Mr. Charles recalled that seeing his name plastered in big letters on the side of city buses advertising the show gave him hope that this was the start of something good. During the run of La Cage Aux Folles, Walter Charles was stage inamorata to Gene Barry, Van Johnson, and Kieth Michell. And, as a tribute to his versatility, Mr. Charles also played the more reserved lead, Georges, in subsequent productions.
One of the highlights of his working years was in the first production of A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden in 1994 directed by Mike Ockrent and with songs by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens. Scrooge was one of his greatest performances in a grueling schedule that required four shows a day on weekends. At one point in the musical, he was hooked to a system of wires and zoomed out and around the audience. On more than one of these precarious flights he thought that this could well be the end of Scrooge and his career.
His theater credentials firmly established; Walter Charles never had much difficulty finding leading roles until illness ended his career in 2016. When not on stage, Mr. Charles delighted in spending time fishing, hiking, birdwatching and listening to classical music and opera in his woodland retreat in upstate NY.