The Heart of Lindsay Theater: Jim Kliegl

Jim Kliegl. Nancy Vigran/Valley Voice

In some respects, Jim Kliegl’s life turned out just about how he expected – after all, he was a teacher for nearly 40 years. In other ways, his life took unexpected turns, but is seems it all turned out for the best.

Born in Ames, Iowa while his dad was attending Iowa State, the family later moved to Fresno, where his father accepted a teaching position with San Joaquin Memorial High School. Kliegl grew up there and attended Fresno State, earning his teaching credential.

“When I went into college, I was told that they need teachers, they need teachers bad, ‘so go be a teacher,’” Kliegl said. “But, I didn’t start out to be a teacher – I started out to be a chiropractor. Then, I found out I really hated biology, so it wasn’t much fun. But, I loved writing, I loved English and I loved math. But, my dad was a math teacher, and I didn’t want to be just like my dad. So, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll be an English teacher – I like writing and I like reading.’ So, I became an English teacher.

“My first job was at Lindsay High School and that ended up being my only job. I stayed there for 39 years, from 1970 to 2009. I retired, and then I went to work – with the theatre and ‘honey-do’s,’” he said. “My wife had quite a few projects she wanted done around the house – building things and putting in walkways and stuff like that – which was kind of fun.”

Kliegl also started to play golf. He had played a bit in the past, but, in general, he enjoyed more active sports such as racquetball and tennis.

“I actually won a few tournaments. But, then I blew out my knees and that was it – couldn’t play racquetball anymore, or tennis,” he said.

Kliegl has had orthoscopic surgery on each knee and had his right knee replaced. He also has had a hip replacement on his left hip.

“I am becoming bionic,” he said. “My days of playing racquet sports were over, and now I try and go out and play golf two or three times a week, if I can, just to stay in shape a little bit. That wasn’t my first choice, I’d rather play tennis and racquetball.”

Kliegl met his first wife in high school. They were married and had three children – Karen, James and Katherine, who were all born in Lindsay.

But, the couple split and Kliegl kept the kids. He was set up on a blind date, which lead to his second marriage to Janet after dating for three months. She had one son, Roy, who it turned out was the same age as James.

“And that was 35 1/2 years ago,” he said.

Janet was a speech pathologist, and she became a Special Ed teacher. She was able to pick up a position in Lindsay.

She later became district office administrator, and then superintendent for the Lindsay Unified School District, from which she has since retired, and has gone into a private consulting business.

“When I retired, I didn’t get another job that paid. But, I am a fulltime, unpaid employee at the Lindsay Community Theatre,” Kliegl said. “I am the theater manager. I kind of inherited that title from Hal Munter, who was here forever until he passed away. And, so, I kind of stepped into his shoes and tried to keep the theater running.”

Kliegl’s interest in theater began with adding drama to his teaching curriculum.

“I moved here in 1970, started teaching and found out that the theater program was defunct at the high school,” he said. “They had no theater program, because the man who was doing theater got mad. When they built the new high school, they didn’t build a theater and they tore down a perfectly good theater at the old high school [which is now the junior high]. He just said, ‘forget it – there’s no place to do theater.’

“In 1973, a couple of years after I started here, I asked a group of students in my Advanced Writing class how come there was no theater here, and they told me the story. And so, I asked, ‘Do you guys want to put on a play? We’ll just do it as a class project.’ And they said, ‘OK, that’s a good idea.’

“So, we did it in the cafeteria. We did, A Christmas Carol.”

And that was Kliegl’s foray into theater.

“Sporadically, over the next few years, I did plays in various locations – outdoors, in the cafeteria, on the stage at the end of the junior high cafeteria – wherever I could find a place,” he said. “I started a high school drama club – it got to be fairly active and we enjoyed doing that.”

In 1983, the Lindsay Community Theatre Company bought its theater. The school district partnered with them, Kliegl said, and rents use of the theater on a yearly basis for school events such as bachelorettes, promotion ceremonies and, of course, theater productions.

“I started using the theater in kind of a dual role – because I was also working with the Town Players, while working at the high school,” he said. “And, in many of the plays the Town Players did, high school kids were involved in. And, in many of the high school plays, some of the adults were involved.

“The high school drama club was fairly affluent. We made money by selling See’s Candy throughout the year, and we would make enough money that we could buy gifts and things for the theater – the spotlights, the light board, the soundboard, the portable, wireless microphones, and a piano – all bought by the high school. And, we would make money on our shows, too.”

Kliegl sited Cats as being the most profitable show ever.

“In 2006, it was released for amateur production, and we spent a lot of money putting that show on because of costumes and stage props we had to rent, and the royalties. That’s when we bought all of the wireless microphones – so it was about $20,000 we spent on that show. And, we only charged $8 per ticket. But, we ended up making $13,000 and that was one of the two only sellouts we ever had. The closing nights of Cats we had to turn 50 people away, which was unheard of because we never had had that happen before. It was a really good show.

“The next year, we did another production that was really good. We thought, this is great, we’re making money, and we’re doing fun things. So the following year, we decided to do Beauty and the Beast and we spent about $6,000 renting costumes. They had to be shipped from New York and they were fantastic – they were Broadway quality costumes! We thought, man, we’ve hit the jackpot!

“Two weeks before our show, Goldman Sachs went broke, everybody else in the world went broke – instead of having 200 people at opening night, we had 35. And we pretty much lost all of that money. We had a little bit of money left in a drama club account after that, but not much. And, that was my last show [with the high school]. That was in 2008, and then I retired the next spring.”

Unfortunately, the high school drama program has not been the same since.

The turnovers of teachers has been high, and the drama department has suffered.

“My wife was still superintendent and asked me, ‘you want to teach one class?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think you understand the concept of retirement,’” Kliegl declined.

OK, so he still keeps extremely busy, but he doesn’t have to be at a classroom every morning at a specific time, he said. However, this year there is a teacher who has a play scheduled at the theater in March. Kliegl said he is not sure what they might be doing, but he hopes it comes through to fruition.

Prior to teaching in Lindsay, Kliegl had little experience in theatrical arts. He did a bit of drama in high school, but the school wasn’t very active in theater.

“I got involved in theater again, when I got involved with that first play that I did [as a teacher],” he said. “I think at last count, I’ve directed 96 plays. And, I’ve been involved in a lot of other plays that other people directed.”

Kliegl has performed, too. He portrayed Bumble in Oliver and Max Bialystock in The Producers.

“I’ve had to do both (direct and act) a lot of times, when people quit. Like, I had to be Billy Crocker in Anything Goes,” he said, ” because the guy who was supposed to do it, quit three weeks before the show, and I was the only guy who knew all the music because I was the director.

“Then we had a stage play called Noises Off, which I was assistant director for, and on Saturday we had a rehearsal, and we were opening the following Thursday. The guy [the actor] is supposed to fall down the stairs at the end – well, he fell down the stairs and he got a double hernia. He had to go to the hospital. I had five days to learn his part, which was the lead part. It was really a challenge, but I managed to do it. I’m pretty good at memorizing lines. I worked on that for like 18 hours a day – it’s a good thing I was retired.”

Kliegl said that his love for the theater keeps him involved at the age of 69. It is, for him, an acquired taste.

“The very first play, that I directed, was just magical – when I saw it actually happen, I thought, that’s magic,” he said.

“You can rehearse, but when you get an audience out there, and they [the actors] get on the stage and they do their thing – there’s something that happens to them – the students, or the actors. It’s something that doesn’t happen in rehearsal. Sometimes they have a little trouble with it at first, because they’re a little shy or whatever, but it just changes them somehow.

“And, I’ve had lots of kids that have said, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t be in a play,’ and I’ve said, ‘oh, come on, it will just be a small part, take a small part.’

“One kid, Patrick Escobar, was a student who came with his friend when we were going to start rehearsals for Cats. Cats was the show that we had the longest rehearsal time of any – it was like six months. We had tryouts in May, and if they wanted to be in the show, they had to go to a six-week dance class in the summer – three hours every afternoon, 1-4, five days a week – dance! That was intense! And, they really became good dancers.

This one kid [Escobar], he was kind of reluctant, he said, ‘oh, I can’t see very well’ – ‘you don’t have to see, just dance! You can’t just stand around here – you’re going to go out there and do it, or go home.’ So, he said, OK – he was a freshman at the time. And, he did a really good job, and he fell in love with theater. He did like 17 plays, back-to-back. And, now, his life goal is to be a director. He’s down in Hollywood. He really didn’t have a lot that he wanted to do – so, every once in a while something like that happens and you go, WOW!”

Kliegl continued.

“Being a director, it’s a little bit like an artist. An artist has a medium, a canvas and paints, or a piece of rock that they’re sculpting, or a mosaic, or whatever they’re doing. A director, he’s got all those things. He’s got the visual parts, he’s got the sets, the costumes, he has to find the right actor for the right part – casting is so important. And, then he’s got the music to think about and he’s got to get them to be able to sing the parts. So, that’s his medium. It’s a creative process – that’s what I really like. I love the creative process.”

Kliegl sees himself working with theater, for as long as he can. But, there are other things he’d like to do, too. For one, he’d like to travel more, he said.

“I like doing things and going places with my wife, he said. “I try to get her to travel – but, she’s still committed to her career. She’s a lot younger than me. She’s only 65, I’m 69. She’s working pretty much full time and she’s supposed to be a part-time consultant.”

The Kliegls did spend a month in Ono, Japan last fall, which is Lindsay’s sister city.

“I was asked by the mayor to stay there for a month and teach English in school,” he said. “It kind of morphed into something a little bit different. We became, sort of like, United States ambassadors. He wanted the citizens in Ono to be exposed to, and be friends with, people in the US. So, we visited a lot of schools, and a lot of retirement homes. Ono is a remarkable city with about 50,000 people. They have like six different boroughs, because the town is sort of a conglomerate of a lot of different villages, banded together and became Ono City. But, each of them retains their own personality. We were their guests for a month – it was a month’s vacation and they paid us.”

Kliegl said he’d like to go back, but there’s more, too, such as England and South America.

All in all, his life has fallen into a good place, he said.

“I almost can’t imagine not having been a teacher,” he said. “My daughter is in the financial world, she’s a banker. My son’s a computer programmer. My other daughter is a teacher and is working on getting her credential to teach Special Ed. My other son is an architect.”

“I enjoy my kids and my eight grandkids,” he said, all of whom currently live in California.

“I guess I’m lucky – my dad was a teacher and we didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but we did OK,” Kliegl reflected. “The love of teaching, I guess, was born in me. I grew into the love of drama, as I became a teacher and started to do more and more in dramatic arts. I was a coach, too.

“There are a lot of advantages to being in a small town. My kids had a lot of advantages going to school here.”

“I was raising the kids and then, when I met Janet, she had one son and I had three, and we kind of put a Brady Bunch together. Janet has been great for me. She’s really my saving grace. I am very disorganized and she’s extremely well organized. When people come over to our house, she closes the door – let’s put it that way.”

Kliegl started teaching more than four decades ago, and while he is retired from his day job, he continues to teach in various other ways, including through theater.

“I’m happy with the way things have turned out. Life has been a challenge at times, but not overwhelming. I’ve had some bad times and good times, and we’re still rolling along,” he said.

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