Singers On the High Seas : Cruise Ship Entertainers

After ten years of singing at sea, Christopher Alan Graves has no plans to head for dry land. “A lot of singers do this for six months, maybe a couple of years, but I feel like I’ve found my place. It’s wonderful! I get to sing, make a great living, and travel.” Amy Van Wyke agrees. She and her husband Peter, a trombonist with the ship’s orchestra, plan to keep doing this for a few more years. “Eventually we’d like to start a family, and a ship is no place to do that. But by then we’ll have financial freedom.”

Christopher Alan Graves credits his vocal technique and training to excellent church and school choirmasters, but he never planned on a career as an entertainer. “Even in high school and college, I was too shy to sing a solo.” he says, but performing with a local theater group was a great diversion from the rigors of classes in psychology and nursing. While working at a camp for handicapped children and, later, as an orderly at a nursing home, Graves discovered the joy that his singing brought the residents…and himself. “They loved it!” He honed his vocal skills, built his confidence and repertoire, and auditioned for a 1986 tour with the Continental Singers. “It was a turning point,” he says, that prepared him for the opportunity to work for American Entertainment Productions when a friend recommended him for a job. The friend said, “You can dance, can’t you?” Graves adds, “Well…I learned to dance! Fortunately I picked up the steps quickly.”

The next few years were a whirlwind as Graves, along with three to seven other performers, sang and danced his way through production shows in Germany, summer theme park shows, winter conventions, and “anti-drug” shows at schools. It was a grueling schedule, but he got his foot in the door and was assigned to his first cruise ship in 1989. As one of only four entertainers for a small cruise ship, he says, “We did everything! We sang, danced, ran the recreation and games.” It was very humbling, Graves admits. “You were more likely to be remembered as ‘the one who sold me that lousy Bingo ticket’ than ‘that great singer from the show last night’!” Soon, however, he was working for Carnival Cruise Lines and has climbed steadily with the world’s largest cruise line.

Compared to his early cruise ship days, Graves now leads a relatively leisurely and glamorous life as Lead Male Production Singer. “My contract states that I will sing five hours a week: two full-cast production shows and a solo midnight show of my choice. That’s it.” He does work 15-20 hours in the ship’s library to “help out” and to fill the time, but “I don’t do Bingo games. I’ve paid those dues! I love the financial security, physical safety, and the international flair, as well as the artistic freedom and quality of shows.” For his midnight show, Graves includes tributes to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. “It’s really a tribute to my father, because I grew up in Philadelphia listening to that music. Also to my mother, who died young. She always wanted to be a singer and I feel like I’m a living expression of her spirit.” Plans include recording a big band/standards album, and learning more Spanish-language songs.

Unlike Graves, Amy Van Wyke always knew that she wanted to be a performer. She comes from a musical family, and by age ten was appearing in productions of The King and I and The Music Man. She began private voice lessons in high school and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire as a comprehensive communications musical theater major. From the beginning she was torn between music and theater. Her early vocal training was classical–“Sure, I learned those 24 Italian art songs!”–but her passion was theater, and she was soon doing lead roles as a freshman. She began professional summer stock at age 19 and eventually transferred to Stevens Point University. “I needed discipline and wanted more training, and it was a great match. They want you to get out in the real world.” After trying the professional theater scene in Chicago, she eventually signed on with a production company that led to her first cruise ship jobs. In retrospect, she says, it was the right decision. “I have friends on Broadway who have earned Tony Awards, and they’re still worried about where their next job will be. The money here is phenomenal–$650 to $1,000 a week to start. I don’t know that I want to be famous, I just know that I want to perform.”

Recommended Reading

How to Get a Job with a Cruise Line: How to Sail Around the World on Luxury Cruise Ships and Get Paid for It (4th Edition, 1997) by Mary Fallon Miller.

Exploring Careers on Cruise Ships (1993) and How to Get a Job on a Cruise Ship (1995) by Don H. Kennedy, Rosen Press.

Titanic Survivor (1958) by Violet Giuseppe. [Amy Van Wyke recommends this account of male-dominated crew life, from a female perspective. “Things haven’t changed that much!”]

Job Requirements

You must be a professional who can read and memorize music and perform a show with only a few rehearsals. Singers must also have acting and dance training. The ideal candidate is an outstanding performer who has musical theater training and years of experience. Excellent musical skills and people skills are required. Candidates should enjoy performing, and should look good on stage.
Salaries are paid in U.S. currency and range from $400-$1,200 per week. Meals, accommodations, and airfare to and from the ship are included. Depending on the cruise line’s policy, you may have the privilege to invite friends or family to cruise at discount rates after a certain period of employment.
Source: ProShip Entertainment www.proship.com

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.