Questions & Answers with community faces
Steve Elrick, 74, grew up in the Chicago area, in Lombard, Illinois, but has spent the past 25 years living in the Crystal Lake cottage that his parents bought in 1955, when he was still in high school. Even before that, Elrick’s family had been vacationing every summer at the Congregational Summer Assembly (CSA), which is where he got his first taste of acting.
Elrick is, without a doubt, one of the most influential people in the Benzie County acting scene. He is the vice president of the Benzie County Players, as well as a member of the Benzie County Community Chorus and the Mills Community House board. When it comes to acting, he prefers comedic parts, though Elrick has done it all. Not living solely in the performance world, however, Elrick is also a visual artist, with a preference toward lifelike paintings and drawings of landscapes and wildlife, particularly birds.
During the summers, a grinning Elrick can be seen handing out paper cups, full of water, to runners who go by his place during the Crystal Lake Team Marathon. But most of our readers probably best recognize Elrick for his winter gig as The Grinch, which he has performed for hundreds of Benzie County children each of the past 25 years. For a long time, it was a one-man show—with Elrick’s facial expressions that peak out from behind his thick beard playing a starring role—but the last few years, he has used The Grinch as a way to connect local 7th graders to acting, which has been such a big influence on his own life.
Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Elrick at his home on the south shore.
The Betsie Current: When did you move to Benzie County? What drew you to this place?
Steve Elrick: Here’s the story. When I was 4 years old, new neighbors moved in next door. I ran into Jack Hawley, the man who was buying the property, and he said, “How old are you?” I said, “I’m four years old.” And he said, “I have a son who’s four years old!” We always went to Wisconsin for vacation. But a few years after that, when I was nine years old or thereabouts, Jack Hawley persuaded my family to come up here [to Crystal Lake]. The Hawleys were part of the world down at the CSA. Supposedly there was a deal that, the next summer, they would go to Wisconsin with us. But Lake Michigan on the Wisconsin side is just a big fishing lake—not that they don’t fish here. But there’s more to it than that [here]. One thing led to another, and we came up here, and of course we never returned to Wisconsin. I moved here full time in 1989.
Current: What community organizations are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Elrick: I started living here full time in 1989, and that’s when I joined the Benzie Community Chorus and the Benzie Players, which I’ve been the vice president of for a very long time. When I started with the Players, we were at the Sail Inn Restaurant over in Benzonia. We gradually got involved with things at the Mills Community House, because things were starting to move there. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I think I’m the only one who has been on the [Mills] board that long—I should probably quit, ha! There was a brief time where I was the chairman of the board, but only because they were desperate. There are good people involved at the Mills, and a lot of good work has been done there to renovate the space but keep the character of the place. I also associate with three churches in this general area, and they all have “Congregational” in the name, not to mention I grew up at the Congregational Summer Assembly [CSA]. As of this year, dating back 20 years ago, I’ve been in charge of the children’s show at the CSA, but this was the first year that I told them that I would retire from the Operetta. I take Pilates at the [Betsie Hosick] Fitness Center, too.
Current: How has the renovation of the Mills Community House changed the way that acting is done in Benzie County?
Elrick: That upstairs room had sat empty—except for bats—for most of the last century. We got it cleaned up, and there have been some physical changes, but basically the upstairs room has been left the same, because—for whatever reason—the acoustics up there are great. The top floor was originally two floors of girls who were living at the school. At some point, they took that top floor out, and it became one high-ceiling room, like you might have at a theater. And it turned out to be wonderful acoustics. And it wasn’t because we planned it or knew what we were doing, or that the people who built it knew what they were doing, but now it’s turned out to be a great place, and we’re doing as little as possible to change the acoustics in there. Besides, it looks like it was built to be a theater.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?
Elrick: I have a favorite hiking spot. [My house sits] at the beginning and the end of it. I try to—and I can’t always do it, but I did it this morning—I start here and go east along the lake or I go west and then around the block in the other direction. It’s two miles total to go up and around and through the woods and back in either direction. Not a horrendously long period of time, but gives you a genuinely good walk, clockwise or counter-clockwise. Except for the hunting season, when I chicken out a little bit and don’t go back in the woods. As for restaurants, the truth is that other people, as a general rule, know more about eating places than I do. And things do change in the winter, when places close. But it’s amazing that as many people find a way to be up here year-round as they do!
Current: What is your training as an actor?
Elrick: I’ve been interested in it a long time. I first got really interested when I started coming up here in the summer. We were playing, a group of kids about my age, and we had a picnic lunch together. After lunch, someone said, “We’re all going to auditions aren’t we?” They meant the auditions for the CSA’s annual Operetta. When all was said and done, Em Williams picked me to be the best part when you are doing Little Red Riding Hood—the wolf, of course! People asked Williams, “Aren’t you going to have a wolf costume that covers his nose and his mouth, like a mask?” And she said, “No, I want them to see his face. Because he does all this stuff with his face.” The year before, we were all mermaids, and at the end, we all got up and danced around. Which was not that exciting. But getting to be the wolf: this was a great part! From then on, I was playing character parts, lots of comedy. Back in Illinois, I joined theater in high school. Later on, I got invited to audition for Second City, but that didn’t go really far for me, though one of my friends actually stayed on with them.
Current: So what was your job?
Elrick: At night, I did theater at various places in the Chicago area. During the daytime, I did art. When we would be up here in the summers, I would work on paintings outside on the deck. My father must have thought to himself, “This is a screwy thing, but he’s really serious about this.” Because eventually he told me, “You need a studio.” I said, “I’m fine. I can get by out here.” He said, “You really need a studio, and your mother has always wanted a dining room.” So we added on to the cottage—a studio on the second floor and a dining room on the first floor, right off the deck where I used to paint. That’s where I do my art still, up there.
Current: Where did you go to college, and what did you study? What did you do after college?
Elrick: I went to Carlton College in Minnesota. It’s an academic school—a lot of fine scholars went to Carlton. But I took art there. I got a C+ in art and drawing, and so I said, “Obviously I have no talent in this field.” So I also did theater at Carlton, but nothing with comedy; that’s what I’m really best at. One thing led to another, and I ended up doing art anyway. When I was going through college, Kennedy was president. He started the Peace Corps, and I joined. But he was assassinated while we were home in between training and going to the Dominican Republic, where I was stationed. So I trained under Kennedy and served under Johnson. We did urban community development. If that sounds familiar, there was a recent president—in fact, he’s current—and he talks about when he did urban community development. Well, I was doing it 50 years ago, and he’s barely 50 years old. We would go into the community and find out what they needed, what they were hoping for, and then see if we couldn’t get them organized in such a way that they would get what they were hoping for. We surveyed all of the dwellings in our barrio, hundreds of them. Barrio La Surza had a pretty bad reputation, and I guess it still does, but we tried to help. The first thing we brought in was water.
Current: What is your proudest achievement as an artist?
Elrick: Well, quite often, it’s the painting that I’m working on that I feel best about. But I live to get in here. [Holds up a copy of Birds In Art.] It’s got all the “Who’s Who” of the bird-art world. Painters, but also sculptors and other things. I’ve been in a few times, but there are guys who get in here every time. They’re really something.
Current: What is your proudest achievement as an actor?
Elrick: After I did the wolf, everything else was downhill, I guess, ha! No, in reality, it’s hard to pick a play. I’ve had a number of parts and comedy parts, and then I’ve done more serious things, too. I did virtually a one-man show, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as the stuff that I typically do, the more raucous stuff: that’s what I’ve had the most fun doing. But it was a satisfying play, a lot of work, and I was pretty proud of that.
Current: How have you seen Benzie County change since you moved here? What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working and living here? What is the toughest part?
Elrick: I’ve been so much a part of it that I’ve barely noticed the change. I’m sure, if I thought about it, I could think of an appropriate answer—well, there’s something about this place generally. There’s something about, I say this without really being familiar with the other two counties, but I see Grand Traverse, Benzie, and Leelanau counties often grouped together as places that are great vacation places, but there’s more to it. We have a life of our own up here. And, I think this is because I live here, but I truly I can’t think of a better place to live. There’s something special about this little corner of the “upper lower,” as they say. If you want, you get to do theater that you like to do. And if you like to be out in nature, there’s that, too. And if you like to be doing artwork that’s based on things in this county, on nature, you’ve got that. But I guess, if I think about it, the people have changed: they are more attuned to being here. I think the toughest part [about living here] is to come up with a functioning Players club; keeping that going. Because you do a show, and then it’s over, so you have to keep finding good theater and more and more people who are young to join. We have to keep getting more young people.
Current: What are your hopes for the area in the future? What else does Benzie County need?
Elrick: When we do theater, it’s like we’re hanging on by a thread. Just this morning, I was thinking while I was lying in bed of all the things that you need to do a play. We have some very fine actors in this county… And there are lots of good plays out there. And we have the new Mills restoration. All this stuff that we have that you need to put on a good play—we’re so close! We have virtually all of the ingredients. But the toughest part is to come up with a functioning Players club and keeping that going. We have to get more young people involved. That’s part of the reason that I retired this year from the CSA Operetta; I’ve been in charge of the children’s show for 20 years, but it was time to pass the torch. And they have younger people who are ready to step up, so it all worked out fine. And wouldn’t you know it, they did Little Red Riding Hood for the first time this year since when I did it all those years ago!
Current: So you didn’t get to cast your replacement as the wolf?
Elrick: No, I guess not, ha!
Current: Are you still doing a lot of acting? Any writing? Directing?
Elrick: Not much writing—more picking selections of what to do. Directing, yes. It depends, year to year, how much I’m on stage acting, but I’ve been doing less and less acting and more directing and other stuff. We [the Benzie County Players] might do three or four plays during the course of a year. I used to be in them as frequently as I could, but with things like Benzie County Players, you have people who kind of pass on out of existence. Some people, including me, have been with Players for a quarter of a century.
Current: You still do The Grinch each year, right?
Elrick: Oh yes, playing The Grinch every year is part of the deal. I’ve been doing that for probably 25 years, and the last 10 years have been with students from Benzie Central Middle School. I actually called the theater teacher just this morning and said, “It’s November. It’s time to start getting ready.” We take a full school day to do this, but it’s a lot of fun. We perform for all the grades, K through [6th grade], about three or four performances [at each of the four elementary schools].
Elrick will be performing The Grinch at the Benzie Central elementary schools; check school calendars for details. Additionally, The Grinch will be performed on Friday, December 18, 2015, at 10 a.m. at the Benzie Shores District Library in Frankfort. The performance is open to the public, though primarily designed for preschoolers.
Feature photo: Steve Elrick, known to many as The Grinch, is truly anything but. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.