By James Cullum
Chip Esten was at ease in the basement of Art Schmalz’ house, like it was just another Sunday night with the boys, a few brews and some bluegrass before everyone called it a night and got up early for work on Monday morning. Just like usual, but Esten is just a visitor coming back to his old home town. He also doesn’t have to get up early. See, the actor/singer/comedian has come back home to Alexandria to see his mom and sister for Thanksgiving, and while here will be playing two performances at the Birchmere Nov. 24 and 25 with his own band and a bunch of his former T.C. Williams High School pals and their bluegrass band Jones Point.
The band took a break for a few beers and a quick chat with The Zebra.
“This is the place we moved when my mom and dad got divorced, and when you’re a little vulnerable as a kid, all of a suddenly I had all these friends,” Esten said. “It meant a lot. I think that’s part of why you become an entertainer, that you’re just desperate for acceptance. And to belong. And most of these guys are cooler than that. They’re sort of laid back with who they are, because they grew up here with the same kids from kindergarten, from nursery school. For me, I was always trying to get in here and be a part of it. And yeah, they made me feel a part of it, even though I was probably bouncing off the walls trying to get there.”
Esten and the guys took the stage at The Birchmere over Thanksgiving weekend to sold out audiences. The Jones Point Band is comprised of Schmalz on keyboards and melodica, John Leary (T.C. class of ’87) on guitar and Roddy Ring (class of ’83) on bass. Esten’s band is made up of musicians he played with while on Nashville, and they will play selections from the show and some new pieces.
If you haven’t heard of Chip Esten, also known as Charles Esten Puskar III, you might recognize him from his role as Deacon Claybourne in 124 episodes on the TV series Nashville, or from his improvised televised antics for 20 years on Whose Line Is It Anyway? Here in Alexandria, though, Chip Esten is a Titan – literally! He is a 1983 T.C. Williams High School graduate, played on the football team and had John Porter as his principal.
To many in Alexandria, though, he is also known as Cathy Puskar’s brother. Puskar, a well-known land use attorney, said that her brother always shined in the spotlight.
“The first summer we moved back to Alexandria when my parents divorced in 1973, Chip’s claim to fame was that at seven years old, he won the watermelon eating contest at the Rosemont 4th of July celebration… because he didn’t stop to spit out the seeds,” Puskar said.
Schmalz and Esten became friends at Lyles Crouch Elementary School, when Esten ran for student body president with the slogan, “Don’t be a drip, vote for Chip!” He lost the election. The pair went on to high school at T.C., and played in a college band at William and Mary. By the time Schmalz was in his second year of law school at George Mason, Esten had landed the role of Buddy Holly in the West End musical “Buddy” and was shortly thereafter performing on the original British version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
“It’s almost like nothing has changed,” Schmalz said, of having his friend back home. “And seeing him on TV shows – it’s honestly where he belongs. He’s always been this guy that just stand out, and he can get up in front of people and just entertain them with jokes and stories.”
Esten, who is married with three kids, now lives in Nashville, and just finished filming his scenes for the upcoming TNT series Tell Me Your Secrets. While he was on Nashville, he performed at the Grand Ole Opry and presented at the Country Music Awards. Except for the upcoming Birchmere gig, he’s technically unemployed. After six years performing as a country music star, he might have what it takes to be a country music star without the acting! What to do? Is the constant improvisor ready to deliver his next line?
It’s not like he’s a big movie star, he says. He still has to audition for his roles. But everything is relative. Who else can say they were Kelly Bundy’s fiancée in the series finale of Married With Children, a Klingon in Star Trek: The Next Generation and had recurring roles on Big Love and The Office? Esten’s also going to soon be traveling back to where it all began – to the United Kingdom to perform at the 30th anniversary of the original British “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” at the Royal Albert Hall.
“I just finished shooting my episodes of the season of Tell Me Your Secrets, so now I don’t have acting work,” Esten said. “It’s a clean slate. Somebody just shook the Etch-a-Sketch. For some people that can be a little terrifying. Honestly for me, it means that there are things that may happen that I don’t know about. I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my days, and I’m going to get better and better at it, and I want to do the same thing with my acting as with my music.”