Young people once dreamed about running off to join the circus. Others figured they might make their marks in Hollywood. These days, they fantasize about joining a rock ‘n’ roll band and reaping all the fame and glory that comes with it.
Benji Toedte had a different idea, but one that was no less ambitious. A skilled skater since the age of 3, he originally honed his skills as a figure skater and hockey player before auditioning for a role with Disney’s traveling ice skating revues.
“I needed something a little more creative than simply playing sports,” he said. “I was told what a great opportunity it would be to work with Disney, and that was always in the back of my mind all throughout high school.”
A member of the Disney troupe since 2016, the 21-year-old Knoxville native currently stars in the Disney on Ice production of “Celebrate Memories.”
The production serves a spectacle of sorts that incorporates excerpts from various Disney stories as well as several popular characters that remain linchpins of the Disney franchise — among them, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and, as Totedte noted, “every Disney princess you can think of.”
“The audition wasn’t only about athletic ability, but how you rank as a performer and how you can interact with the audience,” Toedte, who also goes by the nicknames “Benji” and “Tweety,” said during a stopover on the group’s current tour. The annual auditions attract candidates from throughout the country. Toedte participated in what he termed “mock auditions” throughout high school, but waited until his senior year to actually apply.
Toedte’s tours with Feld Entertainment, the company that produces the live Disney shows, have sometimes found him spending as much as eight months on the road with a single production. Although he currently plays the role of Prince Eric from “The Little Mermaid” and takes part in six production numbers, he also fills in as an understudy for other performers in the show whenever it becomes necessary.
“We have a week in every city, so we move around a whole lot,” Toedte said. “Every week we have a couple of days to relax before we start rehearsing for opening night. We do 12 to 14 shows a week, and then we pack up at the end of the week and go on to the next city.”
Toedte said the company will hit 25 to 30 cities on this leg of the tour alone. (Knoxville is the third stop so far.) He estimates that since he started with the group three years ago, he’s performed in close to 150 cities, some as far as Europe, Asia, New Zealand and Australia.
“Every crowd is special and each audience in unique,” Toedte said. “They each react in their own way to different things. Certain characters are special to different areas.”
He said that a wide array of Disney stories are represented in the show, among them, “The Little Mermaid,” “Frozen,” “Fantasia,” “Toy Story” and “Moana,” one of the company’s newest blockbusters. Aerial acrobatics and interactive experiences with the audience via a live microphone and a “Mouse Pad” offer opportunity for spontaneity and experiences that become unique to each specific performance.
“Everything you see will happen only once,” Toedte said. “It’s very cool to have that interactive element that allows us to be live in the moment. We enjoy those opportunities to change things up and improvise when the opportunity arises. It’s live entertainment. Every day we strive to improve over our previous performance. We’re able to tweak things we’re not happy with to make it that much better. It’s ever-evolving.”
Toedte said that rehearsal periods at the beginning of the tour can last anywhere from two to six weeks on average.
“We not only have to learn the new choreography, but also, as the process unfolds, the show might change,” he said. “We have to rehearse new things throughout the year as the show evolves. We never stop rehearsing.”
The activity that takes place behind the scenes has to be accounted for as well. That includes set changes, lighting design and costumes, all of which have to be loaded into trucks and sent to a new city on a weekly or biweekly basis.
“Our crew is very professional and they’re a vital part of the show,” Toedte said. In addition to the 35 performers, there are a dozen full-time crew members that travel with the show. They’re augmented by stage hands who are hired locally to help construct the sets and assist with various technical demands.”
Toedte said that being away from home so frequently tends to create a tight bond between the members of the cast and crew.
“We all become one big family,” he said.
“We’re all that we have. So you get super close with everyone you work with. I’ve been touring with one person in particular for three years and she’s become like my sister.”
The tour’s upcoming performance in Knoxville will mark the first time Toedte has played his hometown, and he said that naturally it’s very special to him because it will finally give his family and friends an opportunity to see him perform.
“They’ll see what I’ve been doing for the last three years,” he said. “It’s finally coming full circle.”