When the audience jumps to its feet after every performance, Ray Solaire knows he made the right decision when he quite the post office in Blackpool, England, where his father envisioned Ray might someday rise to postmaster general.
Ray was born to perform. In 43 years at sea, he has chatted with Nelson Mandela, danced with Ginger Rogers and entertained tens of thousands of people. An accomplished singer, puppeteer and ventriloquist, Ray has worked his entire adult life at sea. He is now a cruise director for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, a small highly rated luxury cruise line.
Ray always wanted to be in entertainment. He motivated the kids in his neighborhood to play games. "I was a cruise director at 5 years old organizing things," he said. Ray is still organizing games. But he's older and so are the kids.
"I come on the ship. I wine and dine. I meet lovely people, and I'm paid! It's amazing," he declared. Ray loves people. "I never pass anyone without saying hello to them."
As cruise director Ray doesn't have to perform. He has plenty to do coordinating the other entertainment and keeping the passengers happy. But he usually does two shows each cruise and for some passengers, they are the highlight of the trip. Ray thrives on entertaining people. "I would pay to do this. I would pay to do this," he repeated.
"It's a lifestyle. It's my life. To do this job right you have to live it," he believes. "I can't think of anyone else who did 43 years and is still doing it. It's being yourself and not trying to be someone else."
His real name is Raymond Hook. He thought the name was too blunt and that he needed something more theatrical. He took his name from a popular suntan cream in England called Ambre Solaire. He became Ray of sunshine.
Ray's shows are a combination of singing, puppetry and a few jokes. He knows his older audience well and plays to them. He draws the audience in with his singing. Ray worked with a voice coach last year and believes his voice is now better than it has ever been.
But the stars of his show are the puppets, all of which he makes himself. In one show he sings a duet of "Wonderful World" with a Louis Armstrong puppet. Ray has to sing in his own voice and use ventriloquism to sing an imitation of Louis Armstrong.
In another bit that he admits has Puccini turning in his grave, Ray sings Nessun Dorma as a duet with a puppet. And there are his marionettes, Mae West and Dolly Parton. You could imagine what he does with them. "I'm cheeky, never offensive," he said.
Ray's love of puppets gave him the keys to the world. He was 5 when his interest in puppets began. His parents in Blackpool bought them for him as gifts.
Ray found some books and taught himself to make his own puppets with clay and Plaster of Paris. By the time he was 8, Ray found he could make better puppets than the ones his parents could buy. By age 12 he was doing shows for children in hospitals.
Ray performs with two types of puppets, hand puppets and marionettes. To work with the hand puppet Ray taught himself ventriloquism. "That's years of just standing looking in the mirror," he said. "It was all a part of the old Vaudeville."
Ray wanted to be in total control and the puppets allowed him to have it. "It was total theater. I could write the play. I could design the sets. I could direct it. I could do everything," he said. "I was in control of it all."