So many magnificent alumni have walked through the University of Houston’s doors throughout our storied history. In this story, we’ll hear from four alumni with incredible careers in entertainment. So, take time to get a little familiar with a few members of the 297,979 and counting.
In his 38th season as the play-by-play voice of the Houston Rockets, Bill Worrell is remarkably revered as royalty in the Houston sports broadcasting scene. He grew up on Houston’s west side, attended Lamar High School then went on to the University of Houston on a baseball scholarship. He studied dentistry before switching to communications. “I wasn’t so hot on dentistry. My mother was upset. She wanted me to be a doctor,” says Worrell.
He ultimately chose to major in communications while in his sophomore year at the University of Houston. He had a talent for public speaking, and this became clear in his first on-air broadcasting job with UH’s campus radio station KUHF.
It was while he was still at UH that Worrell caught the eye of legendary newsman Ray Miller at Houston’s NBC affiliate KPRC Channel 2. “Everybody told me I was going to have to go to a small town to get started,” he says. “And then Ray Miller offered me a job.” In 1974, after the station’s long-time sportscaster died suddenly, Worrell received his first sports assignment: covering Super Bowl VIII at Rice Stadium. He joined cable sports network Home Sports Entertainment in 1983, a risky move at the time. It ultimately paid off for Worrell.
Worrell has scaled back a bit, calling only home games and a smattering of road games, all in Texas. “It was a grind,” he says of his old schedule. “The travel was killing me.” With his lightened workload, he has no immediate plans to retire; the Rockets, he says, take it one year at a time now, it's mutual decision, a family decision.
Brett Cullen (’79) has been at work promoting his film, “Joker,” a movie the Los Angeles Times called “fastidiously grim.” Cullen plays Thomas Wayne, Batman’s father, alongside Joaquin Phoenix, who very well might have churned out an award-winning performance as Batman’s arch nemesis. “It was a very concentrated set, all engrossing. The character played by Joaquin is deep and intense,” says Cullen. “There was very little joking around on the set.”
Cullen has continually pushed himself to try new and inventive roles. He will play Owen Cave in “Truth Be Told,” a new program for Apple TV. In it, a family tries to solve the mystery surrounding their father’s demise.
The University of Houston started him on this trajectory, and he is grateful for what he gleaned while a student here: “Sidney Berger was a genius as the director of UH’s School of Theatre and Dance. I learned a lot from him. Another great in that program was Cecil Pickett. He was my mentor,” says Cullen. “That’s how you really learn to act. You learn from those who are actually doing it. People would come into town to do a movie and call Cecil — that’s the type of impact he had in the field.”
One of Cullen’s first break-out acting roles was as a character on a 1982 episode of “M*A*S*H,” touted as one of the best television programs of all time. He has also been seen on screen in films such as “Ghost Rider” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”
His long and illustrious career hasn’t kept him from returning to campus. He comes back to the University of Houston to direct and teach master classes. “I’m most impressed with the new Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts,” he says, when asked what is a recent inspiring UH accomplishment. “I’m also proud and honored to have the opportunity to bring industry leaders in film and theater to campus. President Renu Khator and Provost Paula Short have created an opportunity for me to do that at least four times a year,” Cullen explains. “I hope President Khator never leaves, because she’s done great things at UH.”
Erik Barajas (’99) has been seen covering stories as diverse as the Columbia Space Shuttle’s crash to President Barack Obama’s visit to Austin. Barajas captivates news viewers on KTRK-TV’s 13 Eyewitness News each evening — and has been doing so for 10 years. A true Texas journalist, Barajas has worked as an anchor and a reporter all over the state.
His television career began in Corpus Christi, Texas at KZTV 10, where he wore several hats. He worked as a news photographer, reporter, producer and anchor. He says his involvement in different positions helped give him an understanding of the challenges it takes to produce the news. He later moved to Austin, Texas and to KTBC Fox 7 to be that station’s weekend anchor and reporter. “I always wanted to work in Houston; I knew it would be very gratifying to come back to my hometown,” says Barajas.
Barajas grew up watching his Uncle Mike (Mike Barajas ’81) who was anchor on TV for KRIV’s Fox 26 in Houston. It was his uncle that helped him steer his path to journalism. The first step in that direction, he recalls, was his uncle telling him he needed to attend the University of Houston to study radio and television broadcasting.
In 2017, Barajas was awarded the UH Alumni Association’s Rising Star award. “The opportunities that have been presented to me wouldn’t have happened, had I not gotten a degree at UH,” says Barajas. Barajas serves on the UH Alumni Association Board Foundation where he gives back to the university that helped him start his career.
He and his family are proud UH football season tickets holders and can be found cheering the team on during the season!
As a child, Jessica Jones (’09, M.M. ’11) walked around her house, composing her own songs to sing. Surprisingly, Jones didn’t have her first voice lesson until she was a sophomore in high school. Now, the soprano captivates audiences with her genre-spanning roles and versatile interpretations of bel canto and American opera. Jones starred in “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” as Chrisann Brennan with the Santa Fe Opera and has played the lead role of the Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Her character in this opera is forced into a loveless marriage and unravels. “Lucia sounds most alive, though, when Ms. Jones is on stage, singing her heart out, going mad and looking fabulous while she does,” D. L. Groover of the Houston Press writes of that particular role. “When Jones’ vibrant, full-throated voice welled up, she made Lucia’s delirium real,” says Steven Brown of the Houston Chronicle.
The University of Houston contributed to her success in ways she could have never imagined. Jones studied at the Moores School of Music with Katherine Ciesinski, who now teaches at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Another professor who had an immense influence on the young soprano was UH’s professor of voice and director of undergraduate studies, Cynthia Clayton. “UH and the Moores School of Music gave me the experience on stage that I needed to be competitive in this career. They believed in me and they provided support, but also pushed me to challenge myself and grow as an artist. I am so grateful that I attended UH, and I am proud to be a UH alumna!” says Jones.
Now, a Grammy Award sits on her shelf due to her stellar performance in “The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs.” The award, presented in 2018 at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards, was for “Best Opera Recording.” The opera, composed by Mason Bates with librettist Mark Campbell, premiered in 2017 at the Santa Fe Opera in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I never dreamed that I would ever be nominated for a Grammy, let alone win one,” Jones says. “My dream has been to sing. I have been lucky enough to pursue this passion and that I was part of something that received this honor feels like a dream come true.”