Alumni Spotlight

John Murdy ​’89
Creative Director
Halloween Horror Nights
Universal Studios Hollywood

Major: Theatre & Communication Arts

Activities: I was a member of Alpha Psi Omega (National Theatre Honor Society).

What first attracted you to Whittier College? I grew up in and around Whittier, so I knew of Whittier College long before I applied. I was accepted at several schools including USC, but chose Whittier because of the personal interactions I had with my recruiter (Richard Scaffidi) when I visited the campus. Richard came to see me perform in high school shows and really seemed to care about me. That made an impression on me right from the beginning. I wouldn’t just be a name and a number at Whittier College.

Why did you choose to study Theater Arts? When I was a kid, I wanted to build haunted houses for a living. I started my “career” building haunted houses in my parents’ garage in Hacienda Heights when I was 10 years old and did my first professional haunt at the Whitwood Mall when I was 14. I got into theatre around the same time and continued acting all through high school. By the time I graduated from high school, I had left my early “career” behind and wanted to be a professional actor. Whittier College offered me a four-year scholarship for acting, which helped solidify my decision.

Describe your experience at Whittier College. What is your favorite memory? My first year of college, I didn’t appreciate the benefits of a liberal arts education like I do today. I was particularly peeved about having to take a science course, in this case, geology. We spent a weekend in Barstow taking field measurements (which I admittedly did little to nothing on). When it came time for the term paper, I had no data, so I wrote this scathing critique of the class and the need for me to take it which I titled, “What the Hell Am I Doing in Barstow, I’m a Theatre Major?” When the professor handed it back, he wrote, “If this was an English paper I would have given you an A…it’s not. F!” Years later, I got my first professional writing job, ironically, for a film about the development of the Grand Canyon. I ended up going back to my text books from that geology class for research. It taught me a valuable lesson about the benefits of a liberal arts education. In my career, there is not a day that goes by where I don’t use something I learned during my time at Whittier College. Whenever I speak at high schools or colleges, I always extol the benefits of a liberal arts education for anyone who is interested in a career like mine. I still have that term paper from college. Sometimes it’s the things you do wrong that teach you the most valuable life lessons.

What was your first job after Whittier? What are you currently up to? How has your Whittier education benefited you professionally? Almost immediately after graduating from Whittier College, I got a call from professor Brian Reed, who had worked in the theatre department during my time at Whittier College, as well as for a theatre company in Northern California. The theatre company had just lost the lead actor for a play they were rehearsing and asked if I would be interested in auditioning for the role. I flew up to audition and got the part. That was my first professional acting role and it came directly from contacts I made while at Whittier College. Around that time, I also got a call from a classmate of mine who had become a tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood. He encouraged me to audition to be a tour guide, which I did. That first job at Universal has led to a 20+ year career there. I am currently the creative director/producer of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios…so I’m pretty much a professional 10 year old (in that I’m now doing what I wanted to do when I was 10).

What advice would you give to future Theater students when they graduate? I guess the best advice I can give anyone is, “whatever you do, do it to the best of your potential and make yourself indispensable.” I worked as a PA. A gopher. Got people coffee. Picked up their laundry. Lots of less-than-glamorous jobs when I was coming up in the industry. I got noticed because of my work ethic and at each job I made a connection that led to a better job. The entertainment industry is tough. You have to deal with lots of ups and downs along the way. Whatever you do well, you have to top it the next time around, etc. You have to have a thick skin, be willing to take criticism, and deal with lots of rejection. But with personal fortitude and a little bit of luck, good things can happen. I also really believe that it’s important to have passion for everything you do. You have to believe in yourself, even when no one else does.

Finish this sentence: I am a ‘Poet for Life’ because… Whittier College gave me the foundation for my career and my life. My former classmates have become lifelong friends and I continue to maintain friendships with my former professors. Whittier College is a family that will stand by you for years to come.

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