Patrick Heffernan was ten years old when his grandmother took him to see The Lion King at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
The opening number blew him away — he remembers thinking: “This is absolutely magical.”
The Hollywood Pantages was one of a series of theatres built in North America in the early 20th century by a Greek Vaudeville impresario (and if there are any other kinds of impresarios, I don’t want to know about them.) Alexander Pantages, who might’ve been born with the name Pericles Pantages and I am UTTERLY DISMAYED he ever changed that, owned or operated 84 theatres across the U.S. and Canada, many of which are still standing, and the theatres were widely known to be elegant and impressive, done in an exotic neo-classical style that became known as “Pantages Greek.”
The Hollywood Pantages hosted the Academy Awards throughout the 1950s.
For a ten-year-old kid from Mission Viejo, California who had not yet started taking dance classes, Patrick found the experience of seeing a show there overwhelming.
Eighteen years later, Patrick returned to the Pantages — but this time he was onstage.
“We get to take a lot of curtain calls as actors. There’ve been a handful that have stood out — made me really proud and happy for the company I’m a part of, and 42nd Street was one.”
The opening number to 42nd Street is all dance, and it’s a sweeping, epic moment that draws the audience in right away; it’s not dissimilar, in fact, to the opening number of The Lion King.
For Patrick, it was particularly special that his grandmother was in the audience too.
“It was this L.A. crowd. A red carpet was put out. Henry Winkler was there; I guess he just decided, like, let’s go to the opening night of the non-equity tour of 42nd Street at the Pantages. It all just created a strong appreciation in me for the work I was doing.”
In addition to his acting and dance career, Patrick teaches yoga and has done work on meditation and mindfulness practice.
He sees a lot of similarities in the growth he’s experienced in each.
“I started with thinking about a handstand,” Patrick says. “Being in yoga class, I would look around and think, ‘Why can’t I do what that person is doing?’ It seemed outside the realm of possibility. But the practice is really about planting seeds.”
Patrick says it’s helped him to think of introducing an incremental practice that helps him progress over time. This allows him to loosen up any fears about reaching the ultimate goal, but instead, “just being okay where you are.”
And his dance career has played out in much the same way. Patrick says when he first began taking classes at Saddleback College, he was intimidated watching the jazz dancers in the class before his, thinking “I will never be able to do that.” He was mortified to even go in the studio. Then he had an audition for the show George M. at Musical Theater Village, that called for four time steps: single and then triple.
“I remember not being able to do that, on like a body level. I think I cried after.”
But he got cast, and soon found he progressed very rapidly through the milestones. Although tap started as something he “couldn’t do,” it’s one of the first things he tells people about himself now.
Patrick says it was a new challenge to tap by himself, and to begin to choreograph tap, but he was helped in that by a colleague from 42nd Street named Lamont Brown.
“Lamont was teaching rhythm tap, whereas I would do theatre tap. Sometimes we would just hang out and mess around with different sounds.”
During the tour, they eventually began choreographing and producing their own videos.
“The first video I did with Lamont was ‘Strike Up The Band.’ We found a studio in Tucson, and we all just wore red, white, and blue, and just did it.”
Lamont had the idea that a cleaner sound could be produced for the video if they each filmed their parts separately and then the audio was dubbed together after the fact, so they each filmed a version separately.
Patrick said it was nerve-wracking watching the first two dancers, Lamont and Alicia, go ahead of him; they each nailed their parts in one take.
“And then I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I was so exposed. That was one of those moments where I was once again like, ‘Can I do this?’ Tap is so precise; the sound is either there or it’s not.”
Spoiler alert, folks: yes, he could do it.
Here’s another story about the kind of person Patrick is.
He and I met doing a show together in Hilton Head, S.C. I’d gotten the okay from my bosses at the newspaper where I worked full-time to be able to attend rehearsals.
I was nervous pulling up to our first full-company rehearsal. Nervous about finding my way to the rehearsal space, nervous about meeting everyone, nervous about being good enough to sing with them.
I drove over a nail on my way into the parking lot, and by the time I cruised into the parking space, my ‘Check Tire’ light was on.
I checked. Flat.
I went inside, anxiety about my car now taking the place of all other worries. I asked the stage manager, as I was leaving rehearsal later, what to do about a flat tire, but for some reason, the theater didn’t have an automotive technician on staff that I could call.
I didn’t know many people in the area, and the few people I did know were all coworkers who were all then at work. I didn’t own a smart phone, I didn’t have enough money to call a tow truck, and I very definitely didn’t know how to change a tire myself.
So I stood lamely by my car, feeling ridiculous, wondering if I could figure out how to change a tire just by willing myself to learn (narrator: "She couldn't.") and asking these brand-new acquaintances, New York City actors all, if anyone knew how to change a tire (narrator: "They didn't.") and resigning myself to the idea that I’d probably just have to sleep in the parking lot that night and probably forever.
Patrick stepped out of line to save the day. We had just met. We maybe hadn’t even met. It was a big ensemble cast. What stands out to me most about this is not just that he wanted to help, but that he had to defy the movement of the rest of the group in order to do it. Everyone else was going home after a long rehearsal. He had no other ride. But instead, Patrick stopped and threw his lot in with me to join my minor misery and so lighten it: “I’ve done this before. I’m sure we can figure it out.”
And we did, although it took us the better part of an hour. There was a very long period where I couldn’t even locate the spare tire and jack inside the car.
My anxiety was doing leapfrogs around the parking lot. Throughout this process, Patrick laughed, and was light-hearted, and never acted like the situation was any inconvenience to him.
I don’t have a good punch line or anything, it’s just that he really didn’t have to do that, and he really did it.
Back to opening night of 42nd Street at the Pantages. Henry Winkler was there. His grandmother. Lots of other local friends.
The red carpet was from 6:30 to 7, and since their call time wasn’t until 7:30, Patrick and a few of the other actors from the show stood in the crowd and watched all the red carpet arrivals with everyone else.
This is vintage Patrick, that sense of humility and wonder plus a little soupçon of subversiveness. It’s one of my favorite things about him.
Some other beautiful, grand theaters stood out to him from that tour: The Stanley in Utica, The Fox in St. Louis, the other Fox in Detroit.
But the night at the Pantages stands out among them all, and among his entire career, as one of the most memorable curtain calls. Pride, wonder, joy, humility.
“I talk a lot with my students about what is permanent and what is impermanent,” Patrick says of his work as a yoga teacher. “We ask the question about identity. What is it? The clothes, the faces we put on, or is it more about the underlying stuff?”
He produced a dance project at Widener University two years ago aiming for an answer to that question. One of the professors came up after and told him: “It’s not about any of that stuff; it’s about relationships.”
“Relationships will end,” he says. “The only one I think we can attest to is our relationship with ourselves. Because that’s who we’re cognizant of from the first to the last day.”
Patrick is a dancer and yoga instructor living in New York City. He just finished a stint in Irving Berlin’s “Holiday Inn” in Long Beach, Ca.