Hollywood actor opens his own North Bend theater
April 24, 2013
By Megg Joosten
If you go
‘The Wind in the Willows’
April 25-May 11
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday
2 p.m. matinee Saturday
Valley Center Stage Theater
119 W. North Bend Way
$14.50 to $17
Sitting in the audience, watching his cast rehearsing for “The Wind and the Willows,” North Bend resident Gary Schwartz sings along quietly.
“Arch your back, bring your shoulders up higher,” he instructs one of the actors who is playing a horse. “That’s a horse.”
Every year, Schwartz can be found playing Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” performed by the local Valley Center Stage theater in North Bend, a theater he founded. He enjoys directing because it gives people the opportunity to develop as actors and get in touch with their natural talent, he said.
“It’s rewarding for me to see the community developing together, watching actors young and old working together and growing as artists,” he said.
Schwartz hasn’t always lived in a small city, playing Scrooge, singing along in the audience and calling out directions to aspiring actors; that came later in life. He grew up in upstate New York and started his acting career as a mime. When working in New York City didn’t work out, Schwartz moved to Los Angeles, where his career took off. He played a small role in the movie “Quest for Fire” and his voice can be heard in “Star Trek” episodes, and in the movie “Batman Returns,” Schwartz is the voice of Michelle Pfeiffer’s boyfriend on her answering machine, breaking up with her.
“I spoke Klingon, and every once in a while, you’d hear my voice do, ‘Captain to the bridge,’” Schwartz said. “I worked on over 600 TV shows and films doing that.”
Part of the community
After living in Los Angeles for 25 years, Schwartz visited a friend on Orcas Island, and thought it was beautiful. Having reached a plateau in Los Angeles, Schwartz wanted a change.
“My wife won a trip to Salish Lodge and by sheer coincidence I was doing voiceover work on ‘Twin Peaks,’” Schwartz said.
Knowing he wanted to live on the water, Schwartz asked his real estate agent to find him a place on Lake Washington.
“He laughed and said, ‘Are you a Microsoft millionaire?’” Schwartz said. He and his wife bought property on the river in North Bend, instead.
“I really do sometimes miss L.A. It was really good for me … I do miss the sun, but I don’t miss the traffic,” he said. “I live a very rural life here as opposed to the L.A. life. We’ve put down roots in North Bend and become part of the community here.”
‘Let’s start a theater…’
Not quite a Microsoft millionaire, Schwartz did have millionaire ambitions. When a friend invented the Furby and became rich, Schwartz asked him to help, hoping he could do something similar. Schwartz designed an aromatherapy product and put $500,000 into the invention, but the result wasn’t what he was hoping for.
“It didn’t work out and I was going to go bankrupt when, finally, at the last minute, a mysterious company approached us to buy the patent,” Schwartz said, explaining that the company turned out to be Procter & Gamble. “Here I was, seven years later, with nothing to show for it, so I said, ‘Let’s start a theater the old-fashioned way, with no money.’”
Schwartz asked the North Bend Freemasons if he could build a theater in their social hall, and what started as a 16-foot stage has grown in the past 10 years to a 100-foot theater. Schwartz now lives off the royalties of his TV and movie voiceover work, and it has allowed him to develop the small theater, working as a volunteer.
Since starting Valley Center Stage, Schwartz has produced more than 70 shows, directed them all and acted in a few, when there was no one else to play a part.
“I really like teaching. I’m really, at heart, a teacher, more even than a director,” he said.
His latest production is a musical called “The Wind in the Willows,” Valley Center Stage’s first musical.
Schwartz’s teaching and encouragement has been valuable to the actors he works with. Brianna Wedge, 13, said she really appreciates the fact that Schwartz pays just as much attention to the extras as he does to the main characters, when working on a play. Wedge plays a field mouse in the upcoming show “The Wind in the Willows,” and has also acted in “A Christmas Carol.”
“I learned that if you’re an extra, you have to be in character, even when you’re not in the spotlight,” she said.
Julie Lester, working with Schwartz for the first time playing an old washer woman in “The Wind in the Willows,” said she has learned a lot from Schwartz.
“He’s amazing. He could play any roles,” she said. “I learned how to use the space with very few props.”
Schwartz’s mime experience has come in handy in his Valley Center Stage shows, because props are sometimes limited. Instead, the actors hold invisible objects, miming drinking and eating. Craig Ewing explains a time when, during “A Christmas Carol,” the whole Cratchit family was sitting around a large table, eating dinner. After the show, a child approached Ewing and asked where the large table came from.
“There wasn’t a table,” Ewing said. “When it’s that real, they just fill in the blanks.”
He started in New York City, spent 25 years in Los Angeles and is not what one might expect to find directing community theater in a rural city, but Schwartz said he is happy here.
“I’ve created a nice community of actors and they rely on me to do shows,” he said. “I do improv whenever I can. I’m earning my living between that and residuals, spending most of my time in the theater, doing what I consider much more quality theater than community theater. It’s almost professional.”