How ‘Pumba’ of ‘The Lion King’ became an AIDS activist
by Donalevan Maines
EXCLUSIVELY ON THE WEB
My clever friend JJ calls it “Loin King,” but of course it’s The Lion King that plays through August 12 at the Hobby Center.
The North American touring company of the Elton John/Tim Rice/Disney musical brought “Christmas in July” to Houston last month, laying several tracks at the famed SugarHill Recording Studio to include on the second A Lion King Christmas benefit album. Like the first record, part deux will benefit AIDS charities when the CDs drop this fall as a double collection.
Already, the various companies of The Lion King have raised more than $3 million for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to distribute in grants to 51 charitable organizations across South Africa, says Ben Lipitz, who shepherds the national touring company’s participation in fundraising for the fight against AIDS.
The Philadelphia-area native, who is a riot as the scene-stealing warthog Pumba, is married to a “recovering actress,” he says, and they’re bringing up two youngsters in “suburban New York.” The couple met as cast members of a European production of West Side Story.
Lipitz, who’s now 48, gets great satisfaction in contributing his time and talents to the cause, especially having seen the disproportionate hit the theater community has suffered with AIDS. Touring casts also solicit donations from the audience and often perform benefit concerts on each stop, with The Lion King leaving some of the monies for local AIDS charities in the city where it’s raised.
Three cast members who are performing this month in the production at the Hobby Center composed original arrangements of Christmas songs for the SugarHill sessions.
“I always, always had a love for the stage,” he says, explaining that the acting bug bit him in third grade when his class performed a play about Santa Claus and his magic boots. “I played Sol, the Jewish reindeer,” says Lipitz, who is Jewish himself. “Everybody knows Rudolph and Donner and Blitzen, but nobody knows about Sol.”
Whether wearing antlers on his head as Sol or now donning a warthog suit in “Loin King” (oops—make that Lion King), Lipitz says, “I always had a knack for funny.”
Three thousand miles from home, Lipitz says, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in acting at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia (CalArts). “I was not the star actor” in high school, he explains. “I never got the lead in the musical. But I was the hardest-working.” Consequently, he won a scholarship to CalArts, which he calls one of the top five programs in the country. “They only accepted 30 students.”
As the youngest of three children, Lipitz says, “I was looking for attention. But as I got older, I learned to respect the power of artistry. It’s fun to make-believe and play-act, but you develop as an artist by striving to improve your work and your work ethic.
In his four years at CalArts, he explains, he spent five days a week “all performance-based. Four days acting—including movement, voice, script analysis, speech—and one day of humanities outside your major. They were 16-hour days. We would break for dinner, then return to rehearsing or studying. We were challenged to improve.
“It was my first real interaction with people from other parts of the country and all walks of life,” he adds. “I knew no one when I got out there.”
Back home, Lipitz explains, “I had
two choices: rabbi or social work in the secular Jewish community, or actor. In our youth programs, there was always a component of charitable giving, working on behalf of something bigger than yourself.”
Accordingly, he says, Broadway Cares “resides in me.” Lipitz adds, “You can’t be in your late 40s and have lived through the ’80s and not have been impacted by AIDS. I saw dozens and dozens of young men die. One of my college roommates died of AIDS.”
How did Lipitz become the show’s point-man for charitable endeavors? “Somebody simply asked me to do it,” he says. “Somebody simply asked me to do something somebody else had been doing, and that person left the tour.
“I volunteered to hold the bucket to collect money,” after a performance, he explains. “The next time, it was performing in a cabaret” whose proceeds went to the cause. “I just did it. It’s incredibly important to me, and half of our company is involved. My participation increased, and now I’m the fundraising coordinator. Nobody anointed me in any way. Sometimes I’m the lead person, sometimes I’m not.
“We are fortunate to have Robbie,” he adds, referring to Kingwood native Robbie Swift, who plays Ed, part of Lion King’s hyena trio. (Although the hyenas are evil characters in the storyline, they inspire lots of laughs in performance.) “He’s very passionate about [AIDS fundraising]. We are kindred spirits.”
Swift, who’s now 33, grew up acting at Kingwood’s Centre Stage, where his mentor was the theater’s artistic director, Barry Dean of Humble. “I knew at a young age this is what Robbie was going to do,” says Dean. “He practically lived at Centre Stage.”
Dean, along with 16 others who are Swift’s fans (and friends) from Centre Stage, flew to Las Vegas in December 2009 to watch Swift propose onstage to his girlfriend, Lisa, after a performance of The Lion King. “It was very special,” says Dean. “You can see it on YouTube.”
The couple had met when Lisa worked as a “child wrangler,” the advocate for young cast members in the show, the last time that The Lion King played at the Hobby Center.
What: The Lion King
When: Through August 12.
Where: Hobby Center, 800 Bagby
Tickets: Start at $27.50.
To purchase tickets or for more info: broadwayacrossamerica.com/houston or hobby.centerhouston.net.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.