A Tale of Two Gingers: How Jesse Tyler Ferguson stole my spotlight (but later melted my heart)

Just in time for Thanksgiving, here’s a remembrance by one of our contributors about his connection to recent Black Tie Dinner honoree Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Enjoy!

By Jef Tingley

Two looks for BTD: JTF, above, and JT, right.

Long before he was charming his way into living rooms nationwide as gay dad Mitchell Pritchett on Modern Family or originating the role of Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Jesse Tyler Ferguson was cast as something else: My unwitting nemesis. See, Ferguson and I both grew up in Albuquerque, N.M. We were just your typical, fair skinned, sassy, red-headed boys pining away our post-pubescent years singing along to show tunes and dreaming of life on the Broadway stage.

Although we were the same age, we went to different schools so our paths didn’t officially cross until a fateful early 1990s production of the musical Peter Pan at the Albuquerque Civic Light Opera. (Fun fact: the ‘88 production of the show included our fellow gay New Mexican, Neil Patrick Harris, as John.) While Ferguson was cast as a pirate and other miscellaneous roles, I had a much more important, yet far less stripy-sock-wearing, job: Assistant stage manager. Truth be told, my heart ached that it was my Doppelganger who got to bask in the warmth of the spotlight on the very obscure, Day-Glo Neverland set complete with a neon-green pirate ship and fluorescent-orange Jolly Roger flag (it was the ‘90s, after all).

The show itself was haunted and filled with mishaps. The woman playing Peter Pan was stricken with laryngitis. After emergency rehearsals (arranged by a certain trusty assistant stage manager), Tiger Lily stepped into the lead role only to have the power go out in the middle of her very first performance, leaving the audience full of children in pitch black, screaming in horror. But the true tragedy of the show came during a cast and crew “lottery” where a few lucky Thespians were selected via name-draw to experience the thrill of being hoisted into the air and flying on stage just like Peter Pan. My name was chosen, but when it came time to suit up I was too big for the lithe flight harness. To my horror, Jesse’s name was called next and within minutes his slender frame was soaring in the air — a real-life Tinker Bell.

Peter Pan eventually ended, and so did my one-sided rivalry with JTF. Sure, I would see him perform musical medleys with jazz hands and sparkly vests as one of the entertainers at the local (albeit creepily named) amusement park, Uncle Cliff’s, but I figured that was his crowning glory on the road to fame. Meanwhile, I dabbled in acting and even worked seasonally renting Halloween costumes for the Civic Light Opera. But little by little, theater eventually became just a hobby and not a career.

A few years later, I was attending college in New York. While thumbing through Time Out magazine one day, I saw a site that’s still etched on my retinas. It was none other than carrot topped Jesse clad in a sailor suit and “shuffling off to Buffalo” next to lesbian chanteuse Lea DeLaria in a revival of On The Town. It was official: He was on Broadway, and I was twenty-something undetermined major. I had lost the battle and the war.

As time went on, I continued to Google-stalked Jesse. While one part of me cheered on his continued successes on stage and screen, another less admirable part of me wanted to pull a Jennifer Jason Leigh a la Single White Female and just steal his life. Jerrett, my partner of 13 years and also an Albuquerque native, can almost repeat verbatim my diatribe whenever someone would mention “that red-headed guy from Modern Family” and “Albuquerque” in the same sentence.

You can imagine my reaction when I found out the Ferguson would be coming to Dallas for Black Tie Dinner to receive an award. Clearly it was just his way of reminding me who really wore the Tinker Bell harness. To add insult to conspiracy, I had also opted to wear a freshly tailored vintage brocade-silk jacket to the event that had sat in my closet for years after being procured from either my high school drama department or my stint renting Halloween costumes. What are the odds? Even my clothing was teen angst!

When Ferguson took the stage, I was prepared for him to be pompous and arrogant. I expected a narcissist who would bore us for hours with stories of self-grandeur and unnecessary name-dropping as he described being Albuquerque’s first-and-only, ginger celeb. Instead, he was charming, funny, cute and humble telling stories about being embarrassed when the staff of Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in N.M. would sing to you on your birthday (another childhood memory we both shared).

In a moment of catharsis, I realized something very important: I was no longer green with envy about JTF, I was orange with pride. Sure, maybe it wasn’t me standing on that stage but I was sitting in the room surrounded by people I love as a crowd of 3,000 cheered on a ginger from the Land of Enchantment for breaking down barriers and making same-sex couples part of the social norm. I’m not even sure if Jesse remembers me, or my one-sided jealousy, but as it turns out it doesn’t matter. In our own special way, we’ve each been given our own chance to fly.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones