By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
The few times a year Charles Esten returns to Alexandria to visit friends or spend holidays with family, his first stop after the airport is usually Atlantis Pizzeria & Family Restaurant in the Bradlee Shopping Center.
“Bradlee, this was my stomping grounds right here,” Esten said from a booth in Atlantis, sipping coffee under the disguise of a baseball cap, surrounded by Sunday morning breakfast-goers.
In the rest of the country, Esten is known as the singer and actor who’s performed at hundreds of national and international venues, starred as Deacon Claybourne in the six-season hit TV series “Nashville” and appeared on “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and “The Office.”
In Alexandria, he’s known as Chip Puskar, a T.C. Williams graduate and class clown who grew up doing improv, playing football and performing with bands around town.
Permanently based in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife, Esten is back in Alexandria not only to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family, but to perform at the Birchmere this Saturday and Sunday.
“Willingly or not, these people were all my first audience when I was joking around or playing music as a kid, so it’s really just the best to get to come back, especially in a great venue too,” Esten said.
For the past four years, Esten has performed at the Birchmere during the holidays. This is the second year that his opening act has been Jones Point, a local bluegrass band composed of musicians with whom Esten attended middle school, high school and college.
Born in Pittsburgh, Esten moved to the Rosemont neighborhood in Alexandria with his family when he was in third grade. He said he and his sister – local land-use attorney Cathy Puskar – had to acclimate to a new city and school while going through their parents’ divorce.
“As I look back, we were very blessed that if we were going to go through such a thing, it was here in Alexandria,” Esten said. “My grandparents are just up the hill from Maury, so I was able to walk right down the hill to school, and it was a wonderful elementary school. We immediately both had a whole set of friends that many of them are still our friends today, so Alexandria, I feel very fortunate to have been raised in Alexandria. I know that it made me who I am in so many ways.”
Growing up attending Alexandria City Public Schools, Esten said he was known as a clown, accumulating several “wittiest” and “class clown” superlatives over the years. He said he found an outlet for his humor in various talent and improv shows, once performing at Wolf Trap in a children’s festival.
Esten said his lifelong aptitude for comedy contributed to his decision to pursue acting.
“When I was little kid I wanted to be a clown. I wanted to make people laugh,” Esten said. “As I got older, I used to watch movies. I remember seeing ‘Rocky’ and how that inspired me. It could bring you to tears and make you want to run up a thousand steps or go 10 rounds in the ring. … I was moved by what I just saw. So wanting to make people laugh expanded to wanting to make them cry or make them scared or whatever the project does.”
Roddy Ring, the guitarist and banjo player for Jones Point, said his first memory of Esten in high school was of him clowning around.
“I remember it very well: ninth grade French class, the first day,” Ring said. “He and Kieran Mulroney, … who were best buddies, were sitting in the back being class clowns, and my first thought was, ‘What a couple of obnoxious jerks they are.’ And then by the end of high school we were all best buddies.”
Esten said reuniting with those lifelong friends like Ring was one of his favorite parts about returning to Alexandria.
“I have so many friends that absolutely adored growing up here, but what we wanted to do took us away from it, and I have so many friends that what they wanted to do allowed them to stay right here, so they’re here,” he said. “For those of us that left, it’s always a joy to come back. So much changes over the years, but there’s a lot of continuity.”
One thing Esten said has become a ritual is meeting up with the members of Jones Point to hang out and informally play music. In addition to Ring, who graduated from T.C. Williams with Esten in 1983, Jones Point is composed of Art Schmalz, who graduated in 1984, and John Leary, who graduated in 1987. The band’s current drummer is Dennis Whelan, a 1983 Bishop Ireton graduate.
After high school, Esten, Schmalz and Whelan attended the College of William & Mary. The three joined the same fraternity, Theta Delta Chi, and formed the band N’est Pas, successfully touring around Virginia and North Carolina. Whelan was also Esten’s first roommate when he moved to California after college.
While the group members have played in various bands over time and taken different career paths, Schmalz said their common thread was Alexandria.
“The paths kind of wind around and cross and circle back among one another with all these connections that go way back, and you can ultimately trace all the way back to Alexandria and our childhood,” Schmalz said.
After moving to California, Esten got his “break” into the industry with a theatrical debut as Buddy Holly in a London production of the musical “Buddy” in the early 90s. He said it was his high school friends Kieran and Dermot Mulroney and Diedrich Bader who motivated him to pursue acting as a career.
“I have no doubt that they, in a real way, made me think, ‘Well maybe this is more than just a pipe dream. This is something I can try,’” Esten said. “So I owe them that, that they were the ones – before anyone else that we knew had – that they were going to try to follow their dreams there, so I think that sort of opened the door for me to try the same.”
Like Esten, Bader and the Mulroney brothers have starred in numerous films and TV shows over the years.
“It’s kind of wild that this handful of guys who came up through T.C. Williams and the Alexandria school system at the same time ended up going to do these things,” he said. “But I think it almost certainly had something to do with the opportunities they were offered here in Alexandria and the chances to express yourself in that way.”
At his shows next weekend, Esten said he plans to pay tribute to Alexandria with certain songs that make him think of home.
“There’s one [song] that I play here called ‘Back Home’ for obvious reasons,” he said. “That song always made me think of Alexandria. This is where as a boy I chased fireflies. The song says, ‘Fireflies dancing in the yard under a blanket of stars. The sound of their rusty string guitar playing songs we know.’ That’s real. That was real when I was singing on ‘Nashville,’ and I was thinking of Alexandria, so to play it in Alexandria is amazing.”
Leary, Jones Point’s lead vocalist, said the band is excited to perform in front of a familiar audience.
“It’s neat that Alexandria … is such a tight knit community. It’s nice to know so many folks from Alexandria who are going to be there,” he said. “When we played there last year, all of us having grown up here, we just had so many family and friends in the area. It’s sort of like some people describe Alexandria as Mayberry, where my high school principal was also my little league coach, and he was in the audience.”
Esten said it’s his relationships and his ties to Alexandria that make the Birchmere performances special.
“I’m just really grateful in specific to so many people that made an impact on me and made me who I am today, and just in general to this town and the fact that I was fortunate enough to be raised here,” Esten said. “It’s not lost on me that I’m really coming home to where all the music began and to this group of friends that were playing it too.”