PURE INSPIRATION: Shaun Baker gives an inspiring performance in the musical revue Pure Imagination Courtesy Photo
At seven years young it was seeing Gregory Hines perform for the first time at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem that lit the fire in Shaun Baker to perform. A shy child, Baker credits the arts with helping him to come out of his shell.
“Seeing Gregory Hines on the stage was a high for me…a high that I would later experience when I took the stage myself.”
As a youngster in New York, Baker studied acting, singing and dance – particularly tap. At ten years old he starred in a play, written and directed by the late great Oscar Brown Jr. and at fourteen his tap skills helped land him a role on Broadway in the musical “My One and Only.” The youngest in the cast by far, Baker was a high school student with a full time job on Broadway.
“I would get up early for school. After school I’d go straight to the theatre and do my homework, get something to eat then take a nap, get up at 7:30 get ready for the show, do the show, get finished at like 11, get home, go to sleep and get up and do it all again.”
He did that for a year straight in his hometown of New York, then the show hit the road and he toured the U.S. and Japan for seven months.
“I wish young people in these urban areas could go abroad at an early age and experience that. When I was in Japan I was just a kid and to see the way they received us, how much they loved that we were Black and they loved our culture. It was amazing; it changed my life,” said Baker of those early years.
The veteran actor has gone on to enjoy a career in television and film returning to theatre on occasion. In addition to Broadway, Baker has done movies and four television series. Many remember him for his portrayal of the colorful character, ‘Russell,’ on the popular ‘90s show “Living Single.” Baker, whose maternal grandparents were Jamaican, said he enjoyed playing the wise cracking lover with the thick accent.
“As an actor you want to portray three dimensional characters,” said Baker who explained that before Russell a lot of the depictions of West Indian men on television were just loud talking thugs. “Playing Russell I got to show him as a three dimensional character, one who showed love.”
More recently Baker has made a return to the stage, getting back to his theatrical roots and using skills he hasn’t tapped into in years. “Pure Imagination” a musical revue, celebrates the music of the songwriting and composing team, Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse. The musical work of Newly and Bricusse is known over a variety of genres and with varied audiences thanks to the pair’s multifaceted work. The two have done everything from penning songs landing on UK pop charts, to scoring music for such films as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” to writing the soulful and celebrated ballad “Feeling Good” popularized by Nina Simone. Baker himself knew the pairs work best through Sammy Davis Jr. who often performed Bricusse and Newly’s songs.
“Sammy learned from everybody, tried to take from everybody, ” said Baker of one of his favorite performers. Drawing from many sources is something Baker himself tries to do.
“Pure Imagination” ran at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, California December 8 through March 2 and is in plans to possibly reopen and go on the road. The revue features singing and dancing from Baker and the other four cast members who give charming performances. Baker even dusted off his tap shoes for the revue that features him in a solo tap scene that rocked the house the night of February 15 when the Sentinel was invited out.
“Pure Imagination” is an example of something Baker would love to see more people exposed to, particularly people of color.
“I think the best thing one can do, is expose themself to as many things as possible,” said the actor who uses that advice in his own life, studying art forms of all kind.”
“This life is full of peaks and valleys.”
Through meditation and art, exercise and prayer Baker talks about the ways he deals with life’s valleys. Valleys that often take people down.
The film “House Party” was Baker’s first project after leaving New York to move to Hollywood. It was on that set Baker says a fellow actor sat him down and “schooled” him on the business, making him aware of many of the pitfalls like drugs and alcohol.
Now one of Baker’s favorite ways to give back is to talk to youth.
“What I do is I go to a lot of different places, different schools, and I talk to kids,” said the actor who spoke at Crenshaw High’s commencement a few years back. “I talk to them about life, about their future, just to inspire, I think that’s why we are all here, to kind of help each other out to get through this life.”
Baker’s goal for his work is to inspire through his performances. Always seeking to show people something different than they may be accustomed to, Baker has big goals for the future. Playing Othello on Broadway and winning an Academy Award are just a couple of the things he looks to accomplish.
Baker is currently working on a number of projects. He plans to continue working with the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice on upcoming projects. He also has two web series currently online. “Chosen” was done for Sony and is on their website crackle.com, and “Stay in the Climb” is one that was inspired by Tyler Perry and is currently on YouTube.
“I know I want to be here for my children’s grandchildren,” says Baker who has a 25 year-old son and a 7 year-old daughter with his wife Julie who he’s been married to for ten years.