Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography

Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography

Producer Tony James Created Legend Concert Series

Vancouver Island native has had a lifelong love of the theatre arts

  • Jan. 2, 2019 3:30 p.m.

Story by Angela Cowan Photographs by Lia Crowe

Like Boulevard Magazine on Facebook and follow them on Instagram

Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography photography

Performing artist, executive producer, publicist, director, fundraiser, writer. Tony James has worn a lot of hats in his nearly lifelong career in the arts, having jumped into performing as a child, and he’s never looked back.

“When I was very little, I was an attention seeker. I was the class clown,” he says with a wry smile. “I remember a teacher telling me, ‘you need to tap into your talents.’”

And so he dabbled with choir, took part in the small shows available through his school, and quickly decided he much preferred the applause to the odd laugh in the classroom followed by the inevitable detention.

It’s a little hard to imagine the serious, focussed man sitting before me as a rambunctious youngster, but the stage presence that simmers below the surface is impossible to deny.

Those first forays into performing led Tony to being involved in more than 50 projects before he moved into television and film as a teenager. And it was in his teens that he says he began taking the arts seriously in a way he hadn’t previously.

In high school, he was encouraged by a friend to audition for the lead role of Danny Zuko in a production of Grease, and to his surprise, he got it.

“I never took it seriously until then,” he says.

That experience started a chain reaction. At 15, he began working as a director and producer, and by 19 had received an award of distinction for services in contribution to the arts.

Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography photography

It was also at 19 that fate brought another life-altering event: the birth of his daughter.

Already quietly passionate about his love of the arts, Tony’s demeanour takes on an intensity as he talks about her arrival in his life.

“It grounded me. She became the centre of my universe,” he says. “Everything I’ve done is for her.”

And suddenly, his intensity and drive make perfect sense.

Parenthood brought life and all its priorities into sharp perspective. Already passionate and hard-working, Tony became driven. That same year, he opened a privately held production company named in honour of his daughter, Ocean. (That production company is still running, merged into a partnership in 2017 and renamed Renée James Productions.)

He then spent the next 20-some years travelling North America, producing shows, writing and generally working at a breakneck pace. Every so often he’d come back home to Victoria — he was born and raised in Esquimalt — to centre himself and take advantage of the idyllic West Coast.

“It’s important to me to present here and premiere work,” he says. “I like the audiences here. I’m grateful for the people who support me.”

“There’s nothing like the West Coast,” he adds with a smile. “And it’s a good place to write.”

Victoria was where he premiered his critically acclaimed and award-nominated “Legends Concert Series” in the 2000s, celebrating the music of some of the most iconic performers of the 20th century, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Etta James and many more. And in fact, it’s the Legends Series that’s brought him back home for awhile.

Tony is the creative director behind Christmas with Sinatra, that played at the Alix Goolden Hall in mid-December.

“It’s great jazz. Holiday favourites in the style of Sinatra,” says Tony. “It’s not a tribute in the standard sense. [Singer] Dane Warren brings his own style to the music, and he’s great. It’s a celebration of Frank’s music. I wanted something that stepped out of that traditional carol thing.”

It’s sure to be a success, as all the other Legends shows have been, but being the organizing force behind a packed schedule of such shows took a toll on Tony.

About six years ago, he almost left the business. Exhausted, spread thin, bouncing from city to city, he’d lost sight of what made it all worth it. A friend encouraged him to remember why he’d been drawn to the world of the arts in the first place. And so he stepped completely back, took a year off, and experienced the arts purely as a spectator.

In those darkened theatres, watching story and characters unfold in front of him, he rediscovered his love of theatre, of the way a brilliantly put together show can both bring an audience together in a shared experience, and resonate with each individual at the same time.

“It’s much like reading a book,” he says. “You think, I’m going to dive into a different story, a different world. When you’re watching something powerful or funny, it triggers something inside, in your core. Art gives you an outlet.”

Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography photography

The respite allowed his passion for his work to once again flourish, and he’s been writing, producing and directing with fervour since.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says seriously. “I have to keep going. It’s what I’m passionate about.”

The rejuvenation also brought into focus how he can help the next generation of actors and performers as well.

“When you give children or teenagers confidence in the arts, it translates into the rest of their lives,” he says. Working with kids in his studio, encouraging them, directing them, listening to their ideas, “was the first time I realized I’d had an impact. That was very humbling.”

Above all, it made him all the more determined to do everything he could to support them in their own fledgling careers.

“It can take a long time, but sometimes all it takes is that one person to say yes, to show that belief in you,” he says. “No matter what, I want to help people.”

Arts and EntertainmentBoulevard MagazineEsquimaltTheater

Just Posted

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Statistics Canada says the country's crime rate ticked up again in 2018, for a fourth year in a row, though it was still lower than it was a decade ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of June 13

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

Madalyn Clempson, 18, of Chilliwack sings ‘Hiney Yamin Ba-im.’ She won the Intermediate Vocal Canadian Music award at the Performing Arts BC Virtual Provincial Festival. (YouTube)
Chilliwack youth bring home awards from provincial performing arts festival

Chilliwack’s 18-year-old Madalyn Clempson ‘a bit stunned’ to have won Intermediate Vocal Canadian Music

These three kittens, seen here on Thursday, June 10, 2021, are just some of many up for adoption at the Chilliwack SPCA. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Find Me My Furever Home – Three kittens at the Chilliwack SPCA

Kittens were in ‘rough shape’ when they came into the Chilliwack SPCA, now ready for adoption

Jacqueline Pearce and Jean-Pierre Antonio received the BC Historical Federation Best Article Award on Saturday for their story about translating haiku written in the Tashme internment camp.
Article chronicling haiku in Japanese internment camp near Hope wins award

Tashme Haiku Club’s work was preserved and recently translated, authors write

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Chilliwack family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Premier John Horgan speaks as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, right, and health minister Adrian Dix look on during a press conference to update on the province’s fall pandemic preparedness plan during a press conference from the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials to provide details on Step 2 of COVID reopening plan Monday

Step 2 could allow for larger gatherings and a resumption of recreational travel

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Most Read