A Performer’s Life
- By Tom Weaver
A Performer’s Life
by Thomas Weaver
As Carole Demas ’61 looks back on her years at UVM studying English and developing her talents as a singer and actress, two particular events stand out.
One was her first real performance, a role during her freshman year in the “Vermont Varieties” show staged in the Southwick auditorium. Her character morphed from a naïve, beanie-wearing freshman riding a tricycle to a girl in a black leather jacket sitting on a motorcycle. The other was when drama professor and mentor Greg Falls played a record from this new musical The Fantasticks that he and his wife had just seen Off-Broadway. They speculated whether it would last—the reviews were middling early on—but said there was a role in it that would be a perfect fit for Demas.
Within the next decade of Demas’ life, both experiences would have a ring of clairvoyance when she premiered the role of Sandy (sweet thing to motorcycle chick) in Grease on Broadway and played Luisa for two years, 1966-68, in the Sullivan Street Playhouse’s record long run of The Fantasticks Off-Broadway. (For the record: the musical lasted—forty-two years, 17,162 performances, the longest-running musical in history.)
Both roles were perfect fits, indeed, for Demas. She credits Falls with giving her the confidence to embrace that fact. “I kept wanting to be a dramatic actress,” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Don’t rush into not being the ingénue that you are; because you have something very special that shines through your work in that category. If you go to New York and you really want to do it, I believe you really have what it takes.’” It was a proud day when she called Falls, who had since moved on to the University of Washington, to tell him she would play Luisa in the NYC company of The Fantasticks.
While the Brooklyn native did make that career leap to the big city and big time, she did so with a fallback plan—teaching. Working with kids in a dramatic arts program during her college years had convinced her this was another place she could find an outlet for her talents and a fulfilling life. She balanced auditions with a shared kindergarten teaching job at Brooklyn’s PS7, a crumbling school practically under the Brooklyn Bridge. Her co-teacher was a high school friend Paula Janis, who shared her love for music.
“We were in this huge room with a peeling ceiling,” Demas remembers. “We had fifty-some kids, many of whom didn’t speak English, had never been to nursery school. We had to first make them feel safe and help them be responsive. Storytelling and music were the door to that.”
This link between her dual passions for music and educating young people would reach a much larger audience nearly a decade later when Demas and Janis developed and starred in “The Magic Garden,” a children’s television program that was broadcast live on New York’s WPIX, reaching millions of kids during its run from 1972 to 1984.
Broadway, Off-Broadway, and children’s television are just a few of the aspects of a diverse show business career that has spanned five decades. Demas’ credits include classic seventies TV dramas from “Kojak” to “Mannix” to “Barnaby Jones”; more than two hundred television commercials; and numerous roles on stage and in the movies.
Demas says the key to her career has been connecting with the character and communicating that to an audience. “Playing Sandy in Grease was challenging because it was Broadway and the show was running—miracle of miracles. I was doing well in it because I knew Sandy so well. I knew that girl; I was her in high school.” Demas laughs and adds that the key difference was that she did not get the guy in the end—“I didn’t even go to my senior prom because nobody asked me.”
She brought a similar sensibility to The Fantasticks’s Luisa, playing in the intimate Sullivan Playhouse where the actors were practically in the audience’s lap. “I wanted them to feel that girl. I wanted them to be sixteen with me and feel that cockiness and that absolute terror,” she says. “I cried real tears every single night bringing her to life.”
At age seventy-three, Demas is still performing often with a voice that remains strong and clear, a resilience she credits to vocal coach Felix Knight, who taught her to use her chest voice without damaging her soprano voice.
With a youthful voice and spirit, Demas still loves and lives for the rewards of the stage. “It’s a sort of resounding yes that goes entirely through you, emotionally, spiritually, physically when you and the work you’re doing are really working,” she says. “You’re sharing something with an audience that’s very visceral and very real. They leave the theatre with something they didn’t have when they came in. That’s what I reach for.”