She played a witch at Camelot theme park in Chorley and loved visiting Worden Park in Leyland, but Lancashire lass Cheryl Willis eventually magicked up a new life in the theatre in America. KAY TAYLOR talks to her about her changing accent, memories of the markets, and the lack of decent fish and chips in Minnesota.
Cheryl Willis misses Leyland – a lot.
She misses Worden Park, the markets, and her eight brothers and sisters, but she also enjoys her thriving theatre career and busy lifestyle in America.
When the former St Anne’s Primary School and St Mary’s High School pupil left the Wade Hall estate to pursue an acting career in London, she never expected to venture out to Minneapolis and meet her future husband.
Cheryl, now 40, explains: “I graduated from theatre school in London in 1997, and afterwards went to America with a friend who grew up there, and was heading back for a holiday.
“I decided to join them and fully intended to come back, but after a period of travelling around America in a motorhome, I went back to Minneapolis.
“It has a lot of theatres so I knew I could find work, and after auditioning for a few shows, I began a professional stage career there.
“Then I met my husband, who is from Minneapolis.”
Cheryl, was just 25 at the time, said it was a big step for her to wave goodbye to her family, including mum Margaret and dad Fred.
Margaret was a dinner lady at St Mary’s, while also being ‘one of those mums who helped out on school trips to the zoo’.
Fred worked at Leyland Motors as an electrician after fighting in World War Two on the shores of Normandy, and Cheryl remembers proudly telling her classmates that her dad ‘nails wheels on buses’.
“I grew up in a working class environment and was the youngest of nine kids,” she says. “I miss my family so much, and being apart of Leyland’s growth and change.
“When I returned and saw Leyland Motors had gone and a supermarket was there, I was devastated. It was like my history was gone.”
Cheryl’s first job was as a witch at Camelot, and she also attended Blackpool and Fylde College when she was 16 to study drama.
Her fondest memories from living in Leyland are visits to Worden Park and the markets.
“Worden Park was very close to our home,” she says. “The hot air balloon races went right over our house, and I also remember Leyland Festival, Leyland Play Scheme, the duck pond, the maze and the mini train.
“I also remember the market and really miss it, and I remember that every three years or so the council would come and paint your front door.
“I got to choose one year – red.”
Cheryl tries to visit her beloved hometown every 18 months, but is also grateful for her success in the USA.
“I would not be able to have this career and lifestyle in Leyland,” she admits. “If I moved back, I would have to live in a bigger city like Manchester, Leeds or London.
“I’ve tried to stay the same person that I was when I arrived here, but I’ve found I have to adjust my accent and my humour to an extent, as I am often misunderstood.
“Now, when I return home, it’s a struggle to keep up with the raging sarcasm and speed of the Lancashire banter.”
One thing she does enjoy when she comes back is a good bag of fish and chips.
She says: “The food in restaurants here is mainly new experimental, and even though a bunch of Irish descendants have opened a fish and chip shop, it is not like the real thing.
“The city itself is very cosmopolitan and has a lot of cross cultures, which I like, but everything is spread out more which means driving a lot, which is expensive and boring.”
Cheryl, who has no children, is now a professional theatre actor, artist and puppeteer, and she also runs a theatre named Acadia Rep.
She spends her summers in Maine on an island named Mount Desert, because the winters in Minneapolis are long, snowy, and cold. But she does plan to return back to Leyland for good one day.
“I am grateful to be accepted here as one of their own,” she says. “But I have no intention of retiring here.
“I would like to get home before all my older brothers and sisters start popping their clogs!”
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