BY ELLEN GILLETTE
Michael Harrison’s first performance was playing baby Jesus in a church play. Only a month old, he was cast in the role without even an audition. Decades later, he played opposite the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar as a glittery King Herod, his favorite part.
In between then and now, most of the drama in his life has been off the stage.
Harrison’s mother left him and his sister at her parents’ house in Clinton, Indiana, on her way out of town.
“Grandpa Drake was cruel,” Harrison remembers. “I didn’t want to kill animals and he liked to hunt. It was bad enough having to chop the head off the chickens for dinner.”
When he was 5, he ran away. Grandma Harrison, a widow, lived a few blocks over and took him in. The Drakes didn’t mind, as long as he kept doing his chores. And though his father visited once in awhile, he never supported his children financially or emotionally.
While school is a welcome relief for some children in tough situations, Harrison found it harsh. He learned easily enough but one teacher tried to break him from writing left-handed.
“Hazel C. Taylor,” he says, “cracked my knuckles with her ruler until they were bloody.”
When Grandma Harrison realized what was happening, she stormed into the principal’s office, announcing that her grandson could be left-handed if he wanted to be.
“Now everyone knows the smartest people are lefties,” he says with a laugh.
At age 8, Harrison got his first paying job, a 20-minute bus ride away in Terre Haute. His father worked at the Fair Furniture Store and got him the job there knocking nails out of wood to be reused.
“He said if I needed books or clothes, I could damn well pay for them myself.”
Harrison was in choir, band and drama in high school, designing costumes for annual music revues. After graduation he joined the Navy. Two years later, his plans for a military career “went down the toilet” when the Navy discharged him for medical reasons and gave him $175 to get him home and through a few weeks.
Harrison was in San Francisco then, unsure of his next step. An acquaintance let him pay rent to sleep on the couch in a flat with three other people. Unfortunately, his money ran out before he landed a job, and while he could keep his clothes at the flat, he had to sleep in the park.
“They were a tough group,” he says. “I broke down and wrote my mother, asking to borrow $20. She said no. Grandma Harrison sent me $5, all the money she had.”
Soon, Harrison was hired as a singing waiter and also worked with a semi-professional theater. One night, Danny Windsor, half of the comedy team of Doodles and Spider that opened for Judy Garland, saw him perform and offered him a job with their traveling troupe.
Harrison assumed he’d be singing in the burlesque-type show. He was wrong. Windsor arranged for the famed Gypsy Rose Lee to prepare him for his job — a male stripper.
“She’d never worked with a man before but she showed me some moves,” Harrison says. “I’d always been a good dancer.”
Harrison performed as Micky Martin for 15 years, landing film work and meeting celebrities like Mae West and Troy Donahue.
“I took to it like a duck to water, I’m such a ham,” he says with a laugh. “I love being in the spotlight.”
Aging out of stripping at 35 and living in Muskegon, Michigan, Harrison grew tired of cold weather and took Jensen Beach friends up on their offer to visit. He loved the area so much he moved to Florida, getting involved at community theaters in Stuart and Jupiter. Later, he was a founding member of Shiloh Productions and a liquor manager at Sandpiper Bay before going into interior and landscaping design.
He also got married.
“When I met Diane, all I could see were those blue eyes. I was amazed that she’d go out with me,” Harrison says.
One of the couple’s favorite songs was Love Changes Everything and in Harrison’s case, it certainly did. When the 2007 recession ended his landscape career, Diane’s property management business was doing well. However, in 2010 she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Treatments were costly. Diane’s death in 2018 was devastating.
“We were like oil and vinegar — great together, but you have to keep things shaken up.”
Harrison had never stopped performing, and now, the best thing for him was work. “I beat down doors and made it happen.”
Until the pandemic, Harrison did three musical shows a week at area independent and assisted living facilities. Today, he might have three such shows a month, but he’s also picked up regular gigs at Terra Fermata and Notes in Stuart with a six-piece ensemble, The Fluid Band. He’s also produced and performed fundraisers for Molly’s House and Pineapple Playhouse.
When Harrison celebrated his 70th birthday with a gala event, he questioned how much longer he would be able to sing professionally. Five years later, he’s still going strong. Give him a mic, put him in a sequin jacket, and he’s ready to shine again.
MICHAEL DAVID HARRISON
Lives in: South Bend area of Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Professional singer
Family: Two sisters
Education: High school in Clinton, Indiana, and Yeoman School in the U.S. Navy
Hobbies: “I like to plant things. Acting. Singing is more than a hobby.”
Who inspires me: “So many do and have. Eleanor Roosevelt. Helen Keller. I thought Barack Obama was great.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “If there’s anything people don’t know about me, I think I’ll keep it that way!”