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

Black Tie names ‘Modern Family’ star as 2011 Media Award winner

Jesse Tyler Ferguson

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays gay father Mitchell Pritchett, got 2nd Emmy nomination this year


Officials with the Black Tie Dinner this week announced that Emmy Award-nominated actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson will be the recipient of the 2011 Media Award at this year’s 30th annual dinner, set for Nov. 12 at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel.

The Media Award is given to those who have promoted positive, increased awareness of LGBT issues in the media.

The 2010 Media Award was presented to newly out country music star Chely Wright.

Ferguson — who starred on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2005, where he originated the role Leaf Coneybear — stars as in the ABC comedy Modern Family as Mitchell Pritchett, who with his same-sex partner Cameron Tucker traveled to Vietnam to adopt their daughter.

Modern Family weaves together the interconnected stories of Mitch and Cameron’s family, Mitch’s sister, Claire Dunphy and her family, and their father, Jay Pritchett and his new wife and stepson, Gloria Delgado-Pritchett and Manny.

This is the second year in a row that Ferguson has been nominated for an Emmy as best supporting actor in a comedy for his role in Modern Family. He has also been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series.

Earlier this year, Ferguson, acting on behalf of the Modern Familyd cast, accepted the GLAAD Media Award for outstanding comedy series when his show tied for the award with Glee.

Ferguson’s small-screen credits also include roles in The Class, Do Not Disturb and Ugly Betty. Among his film credits are roles in Untraceable, Griffin and Phoenix and Wonderful World.

Black Tie Co-Chair Nan Arnold, in a prepared statement announcing Ferguson as the Media Award winner, said the dinner is “thrilled” to present him with the award.

“As one of the few openly gay, working actors, he has established a wonderful and positive image on network television. The story of Mitchell and Cameron’s relationship is told with so much heart and love. Their storylines do not revolve around these characters being gay, but are instead about two new parents who are in a loving relationship and are trying to work their way through fatherhood together.”

Black Tie officials announced earlier this year that comedienne and Sordid Lives: The Series star Caroline Rhea will be master of ceremonies for the 2011 dinner, and that Chet Flake and his partner of 45 years, the late Bud Knight, will receive this year’s Kuchling Humanitarian Award.

Table Captain table sales are currently under way online at BlackTie.org/TableCaptains.

—  John Wright