FAIR OAKS — He became one of the most significant figures in Tampa's performing arts scene. But there was little in Ralph Arsenault's childhood that pointed to a life on stage.
He was born in Brookline, Mass., the son of a chauffeur. As a schoolboy, he never showed any interest at all in the theater.
"He was from the wrong side of the tracks in Brookline," his son Keith said. "Not the Kennedy side, but the other side."
The way Mr. Arsenault told the story, he was almost physically dragged on stage and forced to perform in a school play. From then on, though, he almost effortlessly built a career that led to roles with prestigious theater companies in Massachusetts and New York City.
In New York, he met his wife, Anzia. They moved to Tampa in 1953 and together helped build and shape a theater and dance community in Tampa.
Mr. Arsenault passed away on March 17 at age 95. He had been in declining health. In November, he fell outside his home in South Tampa and fractured his skull.
"He walked himself into the hospital, and he never walked again," his son said.
In his youth, Mr. Arsenault had a limited theatrical resume. There was a play or two, and then a role in a film called Romance in Brookline, aimed at bringing tourists and new businesses and residents to his hometown.
When he was a young man, Mr. Arsenault and some buddies piled into a car for a weekend trip to New York. The next day, on a whim, Mr. Arsenault auditioned for a play and landed his first New York role.
He ended up moving to Greenwich Village and working at the legendary Provincetown Playhouse.
It was there that he met Anzia Kubicek. They married and performed together in several productions with the New York Light Opera Company. Mr. Arsenault performed with the Provincetown Players in both the company's homes — New York and Cape Cod — and in operas and Off Broadway productions.
In 1953, the young couple visited relatives in Tampa. It was spring, and they fell in love with the weather. They decided it was a perfect place to raise their new son and soon moved here.
Anzia Arsenault opened a dance school and founded Tampa's first professional ballet company. Her husband ran the business end of things.
"He was a lot more than the business manager," said Susan Taylor Lennon, the chairwoman of speech, theater and dance at the University of Tampa and a former dance student of Anzia Arsenault. "He was very much a part of the school. He'd even pick the students up for their classes."
Even though he was primarily an actor and singer, he would help out in the classes when a male dancer was called for. He relished those opportunities.
"Ralph just loved to perform," Lennon said.
He became a constant presence in Tampa's professional and amateur theaters for several decades. He was the leading man in most productions at Tampa Community Theatre and appeared in several musicals with Spanish Lyric Theatre. He also acted in plays with Alice People and Tampa players, where his son directed him in a production of The Cradle Will Rock.
Even as his health started to fail, he never complained and never lost his love for singing. Lennon recalls that when she would visit him, he would answer the door by improvising an operatic greeting. Lennon would sing back in reply.
"He would never complain, never say he was in pain," his son said. "Even just before he died, I asked him how he was doing and he just said, 'Oh, okay.' He was even entertaining the nurses, singing to them from his hospital bed."
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at email@example.com.