SPOTLIGHT ON MICHAEL CROAKER
Michael Croaker’s entertainment career spans nearly 30 years across the Australian Theme Park Industry and through film and television roles. His current position as Head of Entertainment for Village Roadshow Theme Parks sees him at the helm of large scale live productions and events enjoyed by guests from both around Australia and abroad.
We got some great insights into his journey through the entertainment industry and the driving motivation behind the entertainment delivery within the theme park world.
Where were you born and raised and did you come from a big family ?
I’m a Victorian by origin. Both Mum and Dad were in the Air Force so my brother and I moved states quite a bit through our childhood. Postings were fairly regular and a part of a life in the armed services. It was always a bit tricky feeling like the ‘new kid’ at school constantly, but when I look back I think it did install a good sense of independence at a young age.
When did you get attracted to the entertainment industry and how did it all begin for you ?
I remember the first I grabbed a microphone was in either Grade 3 or 4 as part of a little talent quest at school. I got up and did a number of impersonations of the teachers. I’m sure they were very impressed! I was about sixteen when I began performing on-stage in Community Theatre and then by seventeen I was also doing mid-dawn shifts on the local Community FM Station in Townsville. This was all a bit odd for a child of the armed forces, but I think Mum and Dad eventually accepted that this kid was probably going to follow his own path. By 18 I was working as a live show announcer with Sea World and that was really where it all started.
You growth over the last 30 years has seen you achieve a lot of things as a leader in the industry as a creative director with heading up operations with writing and producing as well as acting roles. How do you do this and so well?
I’ve been fortunate to be able to have a little balance here across the years. Gold Coast based film and television productions were very much alive and well in early to mid 90’s with opportunities, and for young actors is was a great time to get to cut your teeth a little on-set. While I got to enjoy some terrific moments in this period, I also realised early on that the Theme Park Industry was rich in opportunity to grow and develop creatively and decided to make this my primary focus, while acting professionally became more a passion to exercise when the timing worked out.
With your role as as being the head of entertainment at Village Roadshow Theme Parks and all that you oversee can you give us a insight and some of the highlights that have been rewarding for you over the years?
I’m a believer that we’re ultimately in the business of hardwiring memories for people, experiences and feelings, that remain with them for their lives. That’s a great job to have!
I still get a real sense of happiness when something comes off the page, often as a pencil sketch or written word, and then eventually takes form through the shared passion and talents of many, to finally be experienced by people of all ages and origins. Successfully producing large scale events such as FRIGHT NIGHTS, WHITE CHRISTMAS and CARNIVALE involve all of the creative forces of our team and we collectively take great pride in delivering these for our guests.
The in-park live shows across SEA WORLD and MOVIE WORLD are very satisfying to create with this same group also. But I can tell you two highlights that sit with me constantly, and these are quite simple and pure human moments. I can recall on the first night of the first year of the CARNIVALE event series at MOVIE WORLD when we were closing the night with a spectacular street parade.
There were large scale floats, dynamic light and sound, almost one hundred performers dancing and playing on the street, and amongst all of this I spotted what seemed to be three generations of one family, smiling, laughing and dancing together hand in hand in amongst our own dancers.
There was no self consciousness, just a complete shared expression of unbridled joy. I watched them and smiled and it reminded me, in a single moment, of why we do what we do. I’m always aware that scale, colour and movement are all important ingredients in our delivery of entertainment, though within all of these things there must be soul and human connection at the core.
I received an email one afternoon that drove this home to me some years ago. It was from a mother of a terminally ill child who wanted to thank one of our Character Suit performers who was playing a LOONEY TUNES character on the day of her visit. She wrote that both she and her husband, up until their visit, had yet to have a photo of their little one smiling and how on this day that all changed. She told of how they approached the TUNES standing on a corner in the park and how ‘SYLVESTER’ kneeled down to their child as Dad got in position for a photo. ‘SYLVESTER’ began interacting and playing with the young girl before he finally put his arm around her and as just as Dad was taking the photograph the little girl pulled back a beautiful smile that they captured forever. I read the email to our Actors and Character Suit performers before an appearance of the Movie World street parade. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room and we were all reminded, quite beautifully, that the work here can make a difference. A real difference to people.
The film the “Nest” that got produced on Gold Coast last year has you playing a role with Kelsey Grammar. What was that like and are you a big fan of his?
While the role was only a very small one, it was one of those ‘pinch yourself’ days on-set. As a music fan I was also excited by the fact that the Director was Kimble Rendall, formerly of the early HOODOO GURUS and with an impressive CV from the world of film also. It was a very relaxed day Set and Kelsey was generous in his time and manner. Finally the last shot of the day had come and it happened to be my close-up. I had no dialogue, I just simply had to react to a situation in the room opposite Kelsey. When the shot was done Kelsey stood up opposite me and began slowly clapping and said, “Bravo, bravo! Now that my friends was quite a performance”. There was some laughter from the crew and I stepped forward with my hand outstretched and as we shook hands I said, “That my friend, right there, was some of the finest film acting you’re ever likely to see!”. The joke had turned a little from being at my own expense and he smiled and said “Nice work”, and with a gentle slap on my shoulder the moment was done.
You have had a lot of amazing roles in TV over the years what was something you look back on and who you worked with and what you did?
It was an honour to sit alongside Bert Newton during his Good Morning Australia years for a little while, but from a pure acting perspective it was terrific to have scenes opposite Francis Greenslade in SCHAPELLE.
I certainly felt a little burden taking on the role of Mick Keelty, who was the AFP Commissioner at the time, but I imagine that there equally was some pressure for Francis who played Alexander Downer seemingly with such ease. He’s a terrific comic talent also and to watch him work up close in a dramatic role was a real buzz. Perhaps the one role my kids really love appears, very briefly, in GODZILLA: FINAL WARS. I got the chance to play a street punk, complete with Mohawk, who comes across Godzilla on deserted city street only to be eaten by the giant lizard. My brother in the scene was Brad McMurray who is currently playing Jacka Hills on Neighbours. We both thought it was terrific to even be seen briefly in the cinematic legacy of that character for sure.
You are known to be a huge fan of the Beatles did they influence you in your early years and what was your favourite Beatle ?
The magic of The Beatles for me is much more than just the incredible music. There are great lessons in the story of the four men who lived that experience. The lessons of staying true to your passion without compromise. To push out beyond boundaries left before you, and above all to be brave in creative choices. They remain such an unmatched creative force even now. Lennon for me seemed to be all that makes for a great artist – fearless, honest, sometimes contradictory but always bold.
If you could ever have a choice to work with someone on a film project who would you pick as director, producer, and for you to play roles with two A listers?
While I’m keenly aware that a day like that is nowhere ahead, it’s always nice to dream big isn’t it! Terrence Malick is a favourite Director of mine. He has his own unique style and visual means of conveying story like nobody else. He’s not for everyone, but he has never been anything less than interesting and thought provoking with his work.
From an acting perspective, I remember watching a scene with Robert De Niro in a 1991 film called GUILTY BY SUSPICION, it was a close-up where De Niro’s character had no lines but the face and truth of his performance gave you every feeling and thought about what was happening internally with that character. I remember watching that and realising there’s many levels to the craft and not all can or will ever travel through them. I’d be happy to just be a faceless guy in the corner, off-camera, watching from a distance, and appreciating it when a great artist like that is working.
When asked on how maintain to stay in show business what is the best advise you could give to anyone?
Try on and get comfortable with wearing many hats, and realise this becomes easier when you get out of your own way and blow off doubt and fear. Longevity in the industry, I believe, comes from a fearlessness to back yourself and put out whatever is inside of you looking for a voice. Be open to new opportunities that will stretch your gifts into uncharted waters. Keep ego at a distance and maintain a desire to continue to learn.
What does 2017 hold for you and is there anything you wishing more so to happen?
One of the great things about life is the fact that we don’t get to know what the future holds for us. We’re constantly bringing our intention to the outcomes we desire, but life ultimately likes to keep us guessing a little doesn’t it? I think if our intention is for new experiences and personal growth then we’re half way there! For Village Roadshow Theme Parks there are many new exciting ventures ahead into and beyond 2017, so there’ll be no room for getting bored soon.
Interview by Caroline Russo