Newly Blue: Tahoe entertainer joins renowned performance art group

Josh Sweigert
Provided to the TribuneSouth Lake Tahoe native Chris Smith juggles at Mount Everest base camp. He would scatter part of his late father's ashes in the Himalayas during the trip, fulfilling a long-held wish.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – A continent away from the lake around which he grew up, South Lake Tahoe native Chris Smith is still “keeping it blue.”

The 26-year-old Smith signed a one-year contract with entertainment troupe Blue Man Group in 2011, and currently performs with the group at Sharp Aquos Theatre at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida.

 Formed in New York City in 1987, Blue Man Group puts on theatrical shows using music, comedy and multimedia to explore various cultural and technological themes. The players are always a trio of “blue men,” actors wearing black clothing, bald caps and a rich blue make-up on all visible skin. The performances emphasize improvisation and audience interaction, providing for a unique audience experience.

“It’s so hard to categorize,” Smith said. “It’s a fusion of music, clowning, improvisation. It’s kind of like alt-Broadway. It’s like a massive Broadway or Vegas show, but it has that off-Broadway feel.”

Smith tried out for the organization in Los Angeles in April.

“From the outset the Blue Man training was unlike anything else I had done,” he said. “I was used to doing a regular audition, you either get the part or you don’t. If you do, you meet your fellow cast members and then learn the show.”

But becoming a Blue Man proved a much more involved process than any of Smith’s past auditions.

“They had a three day audition in L.A. with all kinds of nonverbal improv comedy stuff. There were around 50 of us in one room on the first day, it was pretty overwhelming,” Smith said. “By the third day they’d whittled it down to five of us, and got us in make-up. By that point they decided if they wanted to offer you training.”

Smith made the cut, and Blue Man Group booked him for six months of drum lessons with Ameenah Kaplan, an actor and producer that recently joined the cast of NBC’s “The Office”. Drumming is an integral part of many Blue Man Group stage presentations.

He went on to participate in training shows in New York from September through October. Smith then performed with the Chicago operation before joining the Orlando group in mid-January, where his primary role is “left” Blue Man.

But joining the Blue Man Group is only the newest stage of an entertainment career that first began on a family vacation when Smith was 12.

“We were traveling in an RV that broke down in a little town in the middle of Nevada. Jordan, I think,” He said. “We were waiting at a little cafe that had a book, Juggling for the Complete Klutz, one of those Klutz books. I really wanted it, but my dad said ‘No, you’ll never use it’. So that was kind of the challenge right there.”

After convincing his father to buy the book, Smith spent the rest of the vacation practicing his newfound hobby.

“It took me unusually long to learn,” he recalled. “It took me 10 days before I could do a good three ball pattern, which people can usually get by the end of one day.”

Back in South Lake Tahoe, the budding entertainer worked up the nerve to enter a fifth grade talent show at St. Theresa School.

“I decided to enter, it was a good excuse to juggle some more.” Smith joked. “I was really nervous in front of my peers, that was probably the most terrified I’ve ever been.”

Terrified or not, his act turned heads, including those of some parents and staff that asked him to come do another show for the children at Tahoe Valley Elementary School.

It was at that point that Smith realized that he might be on to something.

“I got my brother and a friend and we formed the Tahoe Jugglers. We’d go around and juggle for schools and nonprofits,” Smith said. “We got in the paper a few times, in the Tribune, and then we got a manager.”

Demand for the Tahoe Jugglers expanded beyond South Lake Tahoe, with bookings in Carson City and Reno. When Smith was a senior in high school, the group entered the World Championship of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, winning the Variety and Comedy Show category.

The next year Smith attended University of California, San Diego. The college freshman planned to study in the university’s film program, but on Jan. 11, his life suddenly turned upside down.

Smith had misplaced his mobile phone that day and returned to his dorm in the afternoon to find a note on his door. Callers had been attempting to reach him all day and the number they’d left turned out to be from St. Theresa School.

Concerned for his younger brother, Nicholas, a student at St. Theresa, Smith called home. When no one answered, he dialed neighbors. Finally getting through to one man, Smith learned the awful news.

His father, Phillip Smith, had been a chaperone on a middle school boys’ trip to a basketball tournament in Mendocino. The team was packing up to leave on the last day, when a rogue wave struck three boys playing on the beach, including Nicholas Smith. Nicholas clung to shore, but the other two children were quickly swept out to sea by the powerful Pacific surf. Sprinting up the trail to alert the others, the boy ran into his father.

Learning of the danger, the elder Smith told his son to fetch help, then ran down to the beach and dove in after the beleaguered swimmers.

“He got the two boys onto a rock and they were trying to get to shore when another wave hit them,” Chris Smith said. “One of them, Michael Blank, was swept back out and drowned.”

The wave also pulled his father back out to sea, where hypothermia claimed his life even as U.S. Coast Guard crews arrived on the scene. The other boy, Jonathan Camello, made it back to shore safely. Phillip Smith was posthumously awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the nation’s most prestigious life-saving recognition.

“From then on everything was kind of a blur,” Chris Smith recalled. “Our neighbor booked me a plane ticket and picked me up in Reno. I was actually home before my brother got back from Mendocino.”

Chris withdrew from UCSD, spending the following months with his mother and brother in South Lake Tahoe while attending classes at Lake Tahoe Community College.

“That flipped everything for me. I had known that I was going in a direction before, a creative direction, but I don’t really think I was able to understand the importance until my dad passed,” Smith said.

During that time he was accepted at UCLA, keen to study film production there. Smith also put much of his time into a more personal project.

“I decided to start writing a movie script, in tribute to my dad. I was really able to use that as a way to be proactive in grieving,” Smith said.

Written and filmed in the months following the tragedy and edited over the next year, “Shadow in the Trees” is a supernatural thriller about a young man whose father is killed in mysterious circumstances. Smith and his friends held a sold-out screening at Caesar’s Casino in 2005, raising $20,000 that they donated to local nonprofit, the Family Resource Center.

His junior year at UCLA, Smith joined a comedy troupe called The Company, responsible for sketch comedy in between musical acts at an annual spring festival on campus. Smith and other core members of The Company created the Internet comedy series “Dorm Life”, using their own college experiences for material. Produced by Attention Span Media, the show landed a Carl’s Jr. sponsorship and ran for two seasons.

“After season two of “Dorm Life”, I went through a period of reassessing what I wanted to do,” Smith said. “I had planned a trip to Nepal with some Tahoe friends. No cell phone or email for a month. We trekked to Everest base camp and spread some of my dad’s ashes there, which was something I’d always wanted to do.”

Returning to the United States, Smith performed briefly with Cirque du Soleil before his successful Blue Man Group audition in Los Angeles.

With all this experience under his belt and his newfound role with a premier theater outfit, the young entertainer shows no signs of slacking. In addition to regular Blue Man shows, Smith is working on his second screen-play.

“I just started my second draft last week,” he said. “It’s kind of my attempt at big budget action comedy. It’s along the lines of ‘Men in Black’ meets Bruce Willis’ ‘Red’.”

Smith also hinted at the possibility of starting work on a third season of “Dorm Life.”

But all this work aside, he’s having as much fun as a Blue Man can. This sounds like a simple task for a guy with free reign at Universal Orlando Resort.

“It’s not unusual for me to go jump on a roller coaster or two before sound check,” Smith laughed.

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