According to Hollywood legend, 16-year-old Lana Turner was “discovered” at the soda counter of the Top Hat Cafe on Sunset Boulevard. Minnesota has its own version of this legend, which happened when T. Mychael Rambo, a beloved Twin Cities singer and actor, was working at a frozen yogurt shop in the skyway system.
“I recently had completed substance-abuse rehabilitation therapy at Hazelden,” he said. “I sang while I sold yogurt, just to humor myself. I couldn’t believe I had ended up there, but still, it was an upgrade from being on the streets.”
With that, Rambo launched into a bee-bopping, scat-riffing version of one of his old “yogurt songs” — a funny, cheery, tuneful little ditty that would make anyone want to buy a frozen treat on a hot day.
While it was Hollywood Reporter publisher William Wilkerson who first spotted Ms. Turner’s star quality, the person who discovered Rambo’s gorgeous baritone voice was the Minnesota Opera’s artistic director Dale Johnson, who was strolling through the skyway with the opera company’s manager, Roxie Cruz.
“They were preparing to mount a production of Showboat, and they heard me singing at the counter,” Rambo said. “They asked me to audition. I got cast as an ensemble member and as the understudy for Joe the stevedore, the one who sings Ol’ Man River.”
In many ways, Rambo’s life resembles a big, sprawling production like Showboat — tender, sometimes melancholy and always filled with beautiful music. There have been setbacks, heartaches and downright tragedy. But he tells the story of his life with an emphasis on the happy ending, the tambourine flourish and the exultant final bow.
A path to the stage
With that first appearance on a Twin Cities stage in 1989, Rambo established himself as an audience favorite and theater professional worth watching.
For him, the role was the fulfillment of a dream that had once seemed impossibly far away.
After earning double degrees in marketing and finance at the University of Texas at Austin, he worked a number of professional jobs, including investment banking and corporate account management. During that time, he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and eventually came to Minnesota for treatment.
“My treatment counselor asked me, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’” he said. “I knew that going back to my former life was not ideal. I told her I wanted to sing and be creative, even though, up until that point, I’d only been in one show in high school, back in Cincinnati. She told me, ‘Get through the halfway house, get a job and pursue it.’”
On the day that Johnson and Cruz happened to walk by the yogurt counter, Rambo was staying with a friend and hoping to save enough for a place of his own someday.
“When I was really at my lowest point, I used to sit in Rice Park, across from the Ordway, and see the opulent people in their finery going into the theater,” he said. “Then I had a chance to audition at the very place I had been watching. And then I was on that stage, and people were watching me.”
Later this month, he’ll back on stage at the Ordway in a fresh spin on 42nd Street — playing the role of Abner Dillon, the love interest of the female lead. Running July 23–Aug. 11, the production is an iconic show-business musical with the show-bizziest line ever, delivered to the chorus girl who has to take the place of the lead: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”
Steady work, enduring grace
What happened after Rambo’s Showboat foray into acting is the stuff of Twin Cities theater history. Since then he’s continued to work steadily in the industry for the past 30 years.
“I haven’t not worked since I started,” said Rambo, who today averages about two shows a year.
While Rambo has a special place in his heart for the Ordway in St. Paul, he’s also been in productions at just about every theater in the metro area, including Children’s Theatre Company, the Guthrie, Illusion Theatre, Minnesota Opera, Mixed Blood, Park Square, Penumbra and Ten Thousand Things. He’s appeared in local and national television commercials, feature films and even an HBO mini-series (Laurel Avenue).
He’s sung in front of two presidents — Carter and Obama — with his patented deep, rich voice.
“Part of T. Mychael Rambo’s appeal can be ascribed to his charisma,” said Star Tribune theater critic Rohan Preston, who’s written about Rambo for more than two decades. “He’s incredibly talented with a smooth voice and tremendous magnetism. But his generosity of spirit — and of heart — are the things that help him to stand out.”
Last year, Preston wrote a piece about Rambo’s unique tradition of delivering Happy Birthday serenades to his friends — over the phone, on social media and even in person — three or four times a week, sometimes even for hire, but usually just for friends for fun.
“Everyone pointed to his grace,” Preston said. “That said, he’s human with flaws, and his honesty about overcoming those also becomes inspiring.”
Sarah Bellamy, artistic director at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, recalled a time 10 years ago when she was launching the organization’s RACE Workshop program. During an especially stressful moment in a generally stressful facilitation experience, she completely lost her train of thought.
“I turned around, and there was T. Mychael,” she said. “He put his hands on my shoulders, looked deeply into my eyes and asked, ‘What do you need?’ and I was OK. I know I can call on him and I know he will always be there. He is a rock for so many people. And he has made a positive impact on so many lives.”
Rambo lives in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood in a house he bought for $1 as part of an economic corridor revitalization program during Gov. Arne Carlson’s administration. It was set to be torn down after a fire, but Rambo fixed it up with low-interest loans, and today it’s a traditional painted lady sporting spindles of burgundy, ceramic slate blue and sky blue.
“When you turn the corner onto my street, you notice it,” he said. “People say, ‘I knew that was your house.’”
Committed to education
When someone recognizes Rambo, it’s usually from his role as the minister in Black Nativity, a role he’s played for 13 years at Penumbra Theatre.
Because of his extensive charity and motivational speaking work, he’s also often asked if he’s an emcee/auctioneer/speaker from a local event. But the thing that pleases him most is when someone says, “When I was in second grade, you taught me, and I still remember it.”
“Theater and singing are my heartstrings, but education and giving back are my heart source,” Rambo said. “Being able to teach is the most rewarding and gratifying part of my life.”
It’s a value he gets from his family.
“Everyone always said that service is the rent due for living on this planet, and education is the cornerstone of service,” he said. “We give back what we have received.”
Rambo conducts frequent residencies for grades kindergarten through sixth, and, since 2003, he has been an affiliate professor in the College of Liberal Arts, Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota.
In 2010, he was again called up to the stage of the Ordway, this time to accept the nonprofit theater’s Sally Award for his education work.
“Education is a big part of my journey,” he said. “I’m committed to using theater as the means to connect, encourage, stimulate conversation and even negotiate space.”
A generous spirit
Rambo said he stopped taking traditional vacations years ago, when he realized that he’d come home from vacation feeling like he needed a vacation. So instead, he combined his love of travel with his commitment to community volunteering. These days, he returns home from trips feeling energized.
He recently returned from a three-and-a-half week trip to South Africa (his seventh trip to Africa) with Arm in Arm in Africa, a St. Paul-based nonprofit where he serves on the board of directors.
“I helped with hospice care, food distribution and early childhood development in schools, townships and orphanages,” Rambo said.
He’s also taken groups of African-American youth to Egypt to tour antiquities and appreciate their heritage as African people.
“They need to see themselves in places and ways they never imagined while embracing the promise and possibilities of their greater yet-to-be,” he said.
Despite so much kindness and generosity, Rambo, once suffered, ironically, at the hands of local youth.
Last July, he was carjacked by a group of five teenagers. He offered them a ride after they told him they needed to get to the next train station. They stole his car, robbed him and hit him in the head with a gun, leaving him in the street as they drove away.
As Rambo recovered from a concussion, six stitches and emotional trauma, he received an outpouring of love from members of the theater community and his many fans.
“He was attacked by the people he’s always helping,” said his friend Austene Van, artistic director for the St. Paul-based New Dawn Theatre Company. “It was so terrible, but it was also beautiful to see how the community rallied around him. His spirit is something.”
Van, who met Rambo in 1991 during a production of The Last Minstrel Show at Penumbra Theatre said she was immediately drawn to Rambo’s big personality and “huge soul.”
“He’s just larger than life, and he’s one of the most generous people I know — in every way you can think of. He’s giving to people every single day,” she said. “It’s beautiful to see.”
Van admires his talent and his penchant for helping colleagues, too.
“He’s always promoting the work of others and giving them a hand up,” she said. “He referred me for my first professional directing job.”
What the ‘T’ stands for
So what’s the story behind Rambo’s distinctive name?
His father’s family hails from Rambo, Texas, a freedmen’s town settled in 1856 by Colonel Gale Rambo and his freed slave, Lydia, Rambo’s great-great grandmother.
With the origin of his last name cleared up, Rambo explained what the “T” really stands for — with a mix of mirth and melancholy that’s so much a part of his story.
At first, he laughed and said, “It stands for THE, because I am THE one and only.”
Then he pulled back the curtain and shared the truth: “My first name is Thomas. I was a light-skinned African-American man with a good grasp of the English language: My father’s mother was the head of the English department at Fisk University (in Nashville), and my whole family are people who love the look, smell and taste of words. Given all that, it meant that many of my peers verbally bullied me by calling me Uncle Tom.”
It was painful. It was unfair. So he did something about it.
“I changed the Thomas to a ‘T’ and changed the narrative,” he concluded.
End of story. Applause. Final bow.
See T. Mychael Rambo perform!
This Broadway classic—which will feature Rambo in the role of financier Abner Dillon—is a musical showcase with energetic dancing and hit songs like We’re in the Money and Lullaby of Broadway.
When: July 23–Aug. 11
Where: Ordway Center for the Arts, St. Paul
Cost: Seats start at $48.
This new off-Broadway play tells the story of six African-American women through the hats they wear to church. Rambo will play a character known as Man, an interlocutor, shifting, transforming and inhabiting the space to support the women in telling their own personal stories.
When: Sept. 13–Oct. 12
Where: Summit Center for Arts & Innovation, St. Paul
Cost: Tickets start at $20.
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.