Chuck Cissel is a born performer.
Longtime performer and Booker T. Washington graduate Chuck Cissel is planning his 50th class reunion this summer, which will include a “sock hop” fundraiser and an evening gala.
Blessed with his mother’s singing ability and his father’s dancing prowess, Chuck Cissel was a child who never missed a chance to perform.
As he grew, Cissel’s abilities drew the notice of the city. His role in Tulsa Little Theatre’s “South Pacific” drew such acclaim that it changed the rest of his life.
Now, more than a half-century later, the president of the Booker T. Washington High School Class of 1966 is using his “creative vision” to organize his 50th reunion. The inclusive, citywide celebration will be July 29-30.
On a recent Saturday morning, just a few blocks from where he was born, Cissel reflected on his 67 years.
“I just wanted to be on stage, to sing, dance and make people happy,” he said.
That burning desire sent Cissel on a journey that included the Broadway stage, professional relationships with show business legends and even a brief career as a recording artist. However, he ultimately found his way back to Tulsa to establish a legacy.
“You could say I’ve been lucky,” he says, “but I would say I’ve been blessed.”
Tulsa philanthropist Julius C. Livingston was so taken with Cissel’s talent and charisma that he paid for the young man’s education at the University of Oklahoma.
Cissel says he was driven to “pursue excellence at every twist and turn” while at OU. A fine arts major, he was a regular performer in campus musicals, plays, operas and recitals.
While performing in a summer stock production his senior year in Fort Worth, Texas, Cissel was told by Betty Buckley — an eventual Tony Award winner — that he had what it took to be on Broadway.
With that encouragement, and with a little money he had saved, Cissel left Oklahoma in the early ‘70s to take a bite out of the Big Apple.
He found a decent apartment in Brooklyn for $75 a month and got his first big break with a role in “Hello Dolly.”
“Pearl Bailey chose me herself,” Cissel says of being cast in the hit musical, which also starred Cab Calloway.
Cissel says he arrived in New York when Broadway casts were becoming more racially diverse.
“It was good timing for a kid from Oklahoma,” he recalls.
It was a groundbreaking role to which Cissel had become accustomed. He had long been a racial trailblazer, beginning with the integration of the Tulsa Boys Choir in the 1950s.
Cissel relished the accepting nature of the Broadway community. He appeared in the mega-hit “A Chorus Line” and forged many friendships in New York that are still going strong 40 years later.
“It was so much fun,” he says of spending the ’70s on Broadway.
Then, his career took an interesting turn. He made two albums in Los Angeles and New York City, received some attention for a disco song called “Cisselin’ Hot,” did some backing vocals for Elton John and even toured with Diana Ross.
By the early 1980s, Cissel, who was married, realized the inconsistencies of a Broadway lifestyle weren’t for him. He took an office job with the New York auction house Sotheby’s. Then, an opportunity in his hometown prompted a return to Oklahoma.
As the CEO of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, Cissel led the organization’s move into the Tulsa Union Depot. Still, he says the main thing that brought him back to Tulsa was that he “wanted to effectively reach the youth of the community.” He says the Jazz Hall’s many shows while he was there “showcased the talent we have in this city.”
After nine years as CEO, Cissel served for two years as the Hall of Fame’s artistic director. By March 2011, health issues forced him to step away.
Cissel’s performing days are likely behind him, yet he still feels Broadway’s lure. After his high school reunion, he is contemplating moving back to New York.
Despite the possible move, he will always have a special place in his heart for his hometown.
“I will always love Tulsa,” he says.