Tonight marks a special night for Pottstown's Steel River Playhouse. At 5:30 p.m., the theater, formerly known as the Tri-County Performing Arts Center, will be rededicated with a grand dedication and red carpet ceremony, followed by a VIP reception and then a performance of Hairspray by the local players.
Playing a small part in the dedication will be Limerick's own Lisa Waltz. Lisa is the daughter of the Waltz family, who many associate with golf, turf and fireworks. A alumna, Waltz now spends her time in Los Angeles as an actress.
She's happy to be back in the Spring-Ford area to make this dedication a success and visit with old friends.
"The grand dedication is exciting!" Waltz said. "We were waiting for a state grant to go ahead and improve the facade of the building. A lot of people didn't know what we were. Now we have plans in place and we were able to rededicate the theater this Friday as the Steel River Playhouse. It's a huge day! It's a red carpet day, actually. I'm a small part of it. The folks that have been working on this thing day in and day out really deserve a standing ovation. It's going to be a really, big, joyous night."
Waltz does what she can from afar, but knows the hard work that was put into the theater is here at the local level. She also credits small-town theaters like Steel River for her successes.
"The goal was to make theater accessible for the community," she said. "The thing that's so sad this days is things being cut from schools are things like band, voice classes, the senior play. Those things are going away. When I was growing up in Limerick at Spring-Ford... The only reason I am where I am today is because I had the crazy idea to be an actress, my parents were crazy enough to let me try to be one, and because I had amazing teachers at Spring-Ford High School and instructors at local theaters like the Steel River Playhouse, who told me I could do it.
"Because I had that accessible to me, I decided to go for it and took a path I might not have taken if I wasn't exposed to it. That's why I'm involved with the Steel River Playhouse, because that link is important. Being involved in a play teaches so many things: working together, gaining confidence that you can apply to in whatever you do in your life."
Waltz encourages the community to go check the theater out, located at 245 E. High St. in Pottstown. She also took some time to chat with LRSC Patch Editor Kevin Haslam for a Q&A.
LRSC Patch: Great. We hope people will check the Steel River Playhouse out, if not tonight, sometime soon! So, about you. Give me some background. What sparked your interest in acting and what steps did you take here in the Spring-Ford area?
Lisa Waltz: I graduated in 1979. I was there at a time when two very talented teachers were there: Hal Holzer and Chuck Yerger. They were the drama directors of the junior high and senior high at Spring-Ford. They were pretty much my mentors. My involvement with theater started right there and of course the Forge Theater in Phoenixville and then in my senior year, I was lucky. These programs are gone now. Back in the day, we would have competition plays. We would go from Boyertown all the way up to Harrisburg and compete at the state level. That doesn't happen anymore and it should.
When it was time to actually think about where I was going to college, my dad had the Waltz Turf Farm, which is now , they were thinking Penn State. Everyone in my family has gone to Penn State. I thought maybe I would like to be an actress. I talked to my father and he said very wisely, 'You find the best school in the country, you audition, you get in and you can go.'
So, when you're 17 years old, you think, 'Oh, that's easy, OK!' I looked around and at the time, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was the best drama program in the country and still is. We loaded up our pickup truck in Limerick literally and drove to New York City to the Warwick Hotel. My parents went downstairs to the bar and had a Bloody Mary and I went upstairs to audition for the drama department at Carnegie Mellon University. Weeks and weeks passed and letters came in from Penn State telling me what room I was going to be in and what my roommates name was and all the things I was going to be doing at Penn State.
On April 15, a very thick letter came to the house. I remember opening up and it said 'We are pleased to announce...' I remember taking it to my father, who was drinking his black coffee and smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table. I plopped it in front of him, he took one look at it and he said, 'OK, you're on.' That was all that was ever said about it. I went on to Carnegie Mellon for four years and had a great education there with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. At the end of four years, they take you to New York City and put you in front of casting directors and agents in New York.
I went in 1983, got my agent from that round and got my very first job from that right, which was Brighton Beach Memoirs, the touring company, and I guess the rest is history. It was a great first job to get. That led to Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway and that led to Fog City Blues on Broadway. That led to Brighton Beach Memoirs the movie, and then Odd Couple II where I played Jack Lemon's daughter. Neil Simon has been very good to me.
My husband and I were in New York in 1989. We moved to Los Angeles where I came out for a television show with Jim Henson for ABC. Then I decided to stay.
Patch: So, you actually knew Jim Henson?
Waltz: Yeah! Yeah! I did. I have to tell you. I can count on two hands now of the most amazing folks I've had the chance to work with and he's one of them. We did a show called Puppet Man. It was all about behind the scenes at Sesame Street. I played one of the puppeteers. I remember the first day of rehearsal here at ABC Prospect in Los Angeles. I said, 'Mr. Henson, I happen to believe I can do my own puppetry work.' Now, remember, he hired real puppetry guys to do the puppets. I was just an actress. He looked at me and said 'Would you like to try that?'
For two weeks, he and I would go to a room. He would not go to network once or do anything he was supposed to be doing. He'd have a sack lunch in one hand and Kermit in the other and we would sit down on folding chairs in front of a huge mirror. I'd put on my puppet and he put on Kermit and he taught me how to be a puppeteer. In two weeks, he said, 'You're ready kid.'
Patch: You can't really hide your identity. You're one of the Waltz's, who have a rich history in the area. What was it like growing up in that family? I know you come back every year and visit and help with the fireworks show for Fourth of July. So, what's it all like?
Waltz: My parents have been incredibly supportive, but the real answer is, they say to themselves, 'Ugh! When is she going back?!' No, really though, I love coming home every year. I fly in. We started having fireworks at Waltz Golf Farm in 1994. That whole idea came about that Fourth of July was the worst day at Waltz Golf Farm. Nobody ever came in and played. So, my father was like, 'What if we did some fireworks here?' We had them in '94 to celebrate our 30th anniversary in business and it was a big success!
The next year, people were asking if we were having the fireworks. It never occurred to us to do it again. So, we did it again and it turned into, happily, this annual thing. I don't know how many girls get to go back to their hometown, sleep in their own bed at the house she grew up in and hang out with her friends she went to high school with, and drive the car they drove in high school. I have a '64 MGV that is tucked in the car barn. Jack that works for Turtle Creek is so great. He gets it all fluffed up every year for me to drive when I come home.
I'm living the dream. I have to tell you, Kevin, there is no bad here. Flying nonstop from LA to Pennsylvania to help the institution that is Waltz Golf Farm is beyond a privilege. I don't know anybody that has that kind of life. I run the firework show. I get to say 'Go!' That's impossible! We built this family tradition in Limerick. I know people who started coming when they were kids who now bring their kids and grandkids. It's become a real sort of family tradition for Fourth of July. That's a lot of pressure, but it's also a big honor. It's completely free, but we make sure we have the fire guys to park out the cars and we ask for donations.
We do this as a thank you to the community. We've been in business for almost 50 years. It'll be 50 in 2014. Not a lot of businesses can say that. The only reason you can say it is a lot of people keep coming. The appetite for entertainment has changed. Miniature golf is sort of old school. It's funny how it was the cool thing, then it was out of favor, but now it's retro-cool again. I guess if you're asking me how I feel about it, I'm always excited this time of year.
Growing up as a Waltz in Limerick. What was that like? Well, everybody knew where your parents were. If you got in trouble, they knew how to reach them quickly. That's not very good, but it was great. It was all very good. I worked at the golf course since I was 13 years old. All my other friends were there too and if they weren't working, they were bringing their dates there. So, I wasn't missing out. It was like the center of the universe.
Patch: How much has the area changed since you were in high school? Is it positive or negative? What do you like to come back and do?
Waltz: Of course it's changed. Light years. I come down 422 and what you see that was farmers fields are now developments. It changes pretty dramatically for me. I think it's a good thing. We should be growing and changing. It's good for Waltz's and all of us. It's funny being in Los Angeles and being involved in the community groups I am in West LA, everybody is trying to get back to what Limerick has to offer. Everyone wants a small-town feeling. You'd think Los Angeles would be happy being Los Angeles. But, there are very small pockets all over Los Angeles that want to live the small-town life and hankering for farmer's markets and the pharmacist that knows your name. People seek that out, that's why they live in these little area. Limerick has had that all along.
Patch: What were the big changes for you moving from East Coast to West Coast? What are you enjoying the most out there now?
Waltz: The weather. I do not own an ice scraper for my car. I will never live in a place where I need one ever again. California's perfect because you have spectacular weather. We have pretty much everything.
Patch: What are you up to now? What are you working on?
Waltz: I do a lot of one-hour television. This past year has been stuff like The Finder and Private Practice and CSI. The next thing that's coming is a show called Perception, which stars Eric McCormick. It's going to be on TNT and it's taking The Closer spot that has ended this year. It premiers in July. After that is a documentary about working actors in Los Angeles coming to theaters in October. It's called I'll Die Trying. That's kind of ironic.
I'm the first one to tell you I'm living the dream, but what people don't understand is, every time you see me on The Finder or other one-hour shows, there's probably 100 auditions I went to and didn't get. My job isn't really an actor, it's actually auditioner. During the week, you can go for three or four different television projects, three or four commercial auditions and you might get called back. If you get called back and they still like you, you get put on a veil, and if you're put on a veil, then you can't take anything else until they decide if they do want you. Then you get it or you don't get it. They don't even bother to call you if you don't get it.
It's not for the faint of heart. A lot of people have their jobs and you change them once or twice in your lifetime. I do that five or six times a week. You're not booking everything. What you're doing every week is auditioning. That's what I do.
Patch: You mentioned Jim Henson yesterday and being one of the most influential people...
Waltz: He's a great guy. I wish the world would have gotten more of him. He checked out way too early. He was a generous soul and a genius. He gave me way too much. He just listened and let me try. I don't think people would do that anymore. I was super naive and straight out of New York and didn't know not to ask. He was thrilled somebody asked. We made a good match. Just an incredible, generous, wonderful spirit. I've been fortunate enough to run into those people.
I played Jack Lemon's daughter in Odd Couple II. My God! Jack Lemon! He was probably the most kind and gentlemanly person you'd ever meet in your life. We'd show up to hair and makeup before we filmed and women had to show up an hour earlier then the men because there's a little more work to do. I'd always be in the chair in the morning and he'd show up every morning with his black poodle and come up to my chair and take my hand and kiss it and say 'Good morning princess. How are you?' Jack Lemon! That's the part where you say, 'I am living life!' Because there he is. Right next to me and being as wonderful and kind as you could possibly imagine. I've been really lucky. I can really count on one hand the people who haven't been pleasant. Most people in this business are generally kind spirited. Jim and Jack were prime examples of that.
Patch: Who else do you hold in high regard in that sense?
Waltz: Obviously Neil Simon is someone I point to. He gave me my first start. He was in the audience when I auditioned for Brighton Beach Memoirs the touring company. I played Nora. There's a big giant speech where she's all excited and it's a big, long monologue. I had it planned to do it a certain way and as I was up on stage, there was someone in the audience that kept laughing over my lines. I had to stop so they could hear what I was going to say next. It completely threw me off. I got to the side of the stage and I was telling the casting director I totally messed everything up and he said, 'Honey, it was Neil Simon.'
Neil is just a dear. He's an absolute wonderful man. After I was on the road for a year, I got to come back to New York and play it on Broadway. I would never forget it. We would do matinees on Wednesday and Sunday and I knew the part like the back of my hand. So, one time, it was intermission and I'm upstairs in my dressing room. There's a speech Nora gives and the last line, I say 'Is anybody excited?' That afternoon, I ran out and said, 'Was anyone excited?'
I'm waiting for intermission to end and a little note gets slipped under my door and it says, 'It's any BODY, not any ONE. Love, Neil.' He's right! Because the B is funnier than the one. He paid attention too and taught me a lesson through that. So, I took that with me to television. A lot of actors paraphrase what the writers write and I try to stay true to what the writer intended.
Then there's Dolly Parton. I did a movie called Love Can Build a Bridge. I played Margaret Judd. Dolly was a part of that. We spent some time together. We started early, like five in the morning. Her car would pull up and she'd pop out of it in complete hair, makeup and outfit, every single morning. The rest of us were dragging our butts in with a latte and couldn't even open our eyes.
Finally, after a week of this, I went to one of her handlers and said, 'What time does she get up in the morning? Does she always do this?' He said, 'Dolly thinks people perceive her as a fairy tail, a fantasy. She's bigger than life. Nobody ever wants to see her in her sweatpants and without her hair done. She wants to fulfill that fantasy and make people happy. She never wants to be caught undone.'
I'll never forget that. She loved being in the spotlight. She loved doing what she did. She took it was a real responsibility.
I've been lucky to meet some incredible people, big and small, working actors all over the place. They know how lucky they are too. Television is a powerful tool. I never understood that. People come up to me and really feel like they knew me and I never understood why, but it's because they're in their living room and I'm in there with them. They feel like they have a relationship with me. So, when I'm on the street, people come up and feel like they know you. That's a privilege. You have to be really careful with that.
Patch: Anything else you'd like to add?
Waltz: Thank you. You're very kind to listen to me spin some tales. The message of it all is: I am from Limerick and I am an actress in Los Angeles. That means anything is possible. That's really where I hope the Steel River Playhouse has an ear out for that heartbeat, because people say 'A dream is a wish your heart makes.' I think that's what it's all about. It's possible. I'm living proof that this is possible.