If you called Tia Thompson a firecracker in a small package, you’d be right on the mark. In fact, the Richmond Hill resident was known for putting on an explosive show back when she was the headline entertainer on Carnival cruise ships.
Thompson, who was born and reared in the Wilmington, Delaware area, would be the first to tell you that singing and playing drums and other percussion instruments came early to her.
“I was a cruise ship headline entertainer for 26 years. As a headline entertainer, I would fly to various places and join the cruise ship to provide entertainment. I usually headlined with another person, maybe a comedian or juggler. I started entertaining as a kid.”
Although no longer entertaining on cruise ships, Thompson would tell you she loves the stage and her interest in music started as a youngster.
“I went to Norfolk State University and got a music education degree in 1983. After I graduated from college, I taught music for a few years. I always had that desire to teach and perform. I taught voice lessons and percussion instruments. I also taught elementary school music. I finally sent in audition tapes to some cruise lines and somebody called me and it all started and I went on my journey.”
Thompson made her cruise ship debut in 1986. When she first started entertaining for Carnival she would live aboard the ship for six months of the year while they toured various Caribbean ports. Then it became more of a fly-on, fly-off kind of job, where she might fly to Barbados, for example, and connect with the cruise ship while it was in port and entertain the travelers. She spent two or three days aboard each ship before moving on to another.
Once finished with a show, which could include performing before an audience of 2,000, Thompson would spend the season flying to various ports-of-call, entertain before the cruise season ended and she would fly home to Florida, where she lived then.
“It was a pretty nomadic lifestyle, but somebody had to do it,” she said with a laugh.
Thompson smiled as she described what she called her “spicy” show.
“The main show was earlier in the evening and lasted between 35 and 50 minutes and was family-oriented. It was like at 8:30 p.m. Back then the entertainers had to do a midnight show, as well. My ‘spicy’ show was musical comedy, kind of like Bette Midler-ish. So I’d sing some songs, tell a few jokes and it was fun and everyone had a good time.
I usually did two shows per night and once in a while, three shows.
“I loved flying to the islands and even now I have so many friends from those days. We are still close.
The money was good. It was just a fun life. My last cruise ship performance was 2011.”
Her shows can still be seen on YouTube.
That was a good part of her life and one that she wouldn’t trade for the world, she says, but she was looking to put down roots and spend time with her mother and father, Gloria and Harold Thompson.
Although the cruise ship days are behind her, teaching music and entertaining is still very much a part of her life.
“I teach voice and percussion. I have about 25 students ranging from kindergarten all the way up to high school. As a music major in college, we all had to play piano so I can play that, but I’m no expert. I love to play drums.”
For some, teaching music lessons would be a fulltime endeavor. The self-proclaimed workaholic teaches her students in the evenings and is a substitute teacher three days a week in the Bryan County school system.
“I love the kids and I love teaching.”
She also performs periodically as part of a two-person group called “Coffee and Cream.”
“We mainly perform in Richmond Hill. Heather Varanelli is the other half of our group. She teaches at Richmond Hill Middle School. So we are both busy. We perform blues, the standards and more modern music.
Thompson says she can’t imagine her life without music. While many children yearn to be doctors or lawyers, Thompson said she always wanted to be an entertainer and attributes her love of entertaining, in part, to her early days singing in the church choir.
“My mom is a great singer. She grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania, and was the first African-American to make all-state choir in Pennsylvania. She is 82 years old. If you Google her at Gloria Richards, her maiden name, it will still come up. My dad, Harold is 84.”
Thompson and her parents also owned and ran “Mrs. T’s Bakery” for several years in Richmond Hill. This is clearly a family that lets no moss grow under their feet.
The former cruise headliner attributes her work ethic to a solid upbringing that taught her the meaning of hard work.
“I’m very blessed. My mom and dad have been the biggest inspiration in my life. My dad is a reverend and he instilled in me and my brother and sister to have a lot of love. My dad always said that family is the most important thing. He also taught me the value of hard work. To stick together with family and never stay mad. My mom taught me the value of patience and accepting people for who they are.
Thompson said despite her busy schedule, she hopes to entertain locally with Heather sometime in the fall.
“We want to get back to entertaining and I think we will maybe in September or October. We’ve just been busy. But I love being in front of people and entertaining.
“Just watch for us.”