Back in the summer of 1976, Harry Dietzler dreamed of introducing families and young people to the magic of live theater.This summer, Harry Dietzler celebrates 35 years of magical theater at Upper Darby Summer Stage.
Imagine a place where teens feel accepted and comfortable… where young people of different backgrounds and races work together for a common goal: inspiring a love of live theater. Picture a cultural oasis just outside Philadelphia, where life-long friendships begin and lives are transformed.
This summer marks the 35th season for Upper Darby Summer Stage. Thirty thousand ticket-holders walk through the doors during July and August to experience six children’s theater shows and a Mainstage production; 28 performances in all. Seven hundred young people participate each summer, learning from a staff of 90 professionals. During open registration in mid-April, parents stand in line for hours to ensure their children get spots.
In six short weeks, seven unique productions are rehearsed, sets are designed and built, choreography comes together, and costumes are crafted. Most of the 28 performances are sell-outs – an extraordinary feat since the theater can accommodate 1,200 for the Summer Stage productions.
Many theater-lovers first brought their children to Upper Darby Summer Stage decades ago. Now, they’re bringing their grandchildren. Performers, teachers and volunteers have the same special place in their hearts for the program. For 35 years the cycle has continued – with new generations watching the shows and others taking part as “Summer Stagers” – and each year the magic carries on under the direction of one man: founder and executive director Harry Dietzler.
A Special Leader
Since 1976, Dietzler has personally welcomed each and every audience member to the children’s theatre shows.
Like clockwork, the lights dim prior to each performance and the “Summer Stage” song begins (written by Mr. Dietzler’s mother) and down the steps and onto the stage runs Harry Dietzler – a young – and-light-on-his-feet – 55 year old.
Audience members join performers singing the Summer Stage song “We’ve Got Magic Up Our Sleeve,” sending chills down the spine of everyone in the house. As the Summer Stage song fades, Dietzler shouts out to the audience, “Hi Everybody!” and the audience shouts back, “Hi Harry!” Dietzler invites the young children in the audience to help him dim the lights to begin the show. It’s a personal, fatherly touch that children don’t experience sitting in front a TV or movie theater screen. In 35 years, Dietzler has run up and down these steps nearly 1,000 times.
Before they head home, children in the audience have the opportunity to meet the performers on the large patio outside the theatre. Little girls anxiously hold up their programs for princesses to autograph. Conversations take place, photos are snapped, and memories are made, with smiles are all around.
Alumni of the program include the Emmy award-winning actress Tina Fey, Monica Horan, who starred in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Alyse Alan Louis, who plays “Sophie” in the Broadway production of “Mamma Mia,” Jim Badrak, production manager at Carnegie Hall, Terrence J. Nolen and Amy Murphy, founders of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company, and Kate Galvin, casting director at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre.
A Cultural Center
The Upper Darby Performing Arts Center is the home of Summer Stage and located on the campus of Upper Darby High School, one of the largest high schools in Pennsylvania. It is situated in the midst of densely populated row houses that make up the diverse municipality of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania’s fifth most populous city, a city that far too often receives negative press.
At Upper Darby Summer Stage, positive stories abound. Stories about community spirit, the love of the arts, young people from various ethnic backgrounds working together, parents supporting their children, and a community learning to love live theater while welcoming others to share the magic. In the end, the program helps make the township of Upper Darby a better place – all thanks to Harry Dietzler.
Harry Dietzler started the program in 1976 as a 20-year-old music major at Temple University. Since then, thousands of young theater-goers throughout the Philadelphia region have been introduced to live musical theater, seeing their first live performance on the UDPAC stage.
And because of Harry Dietzler, hundreds of people who participated in the program have met their destinies. Several couples have met and married (including Harry and his wife Dottie), young people have found confidence in themselves to become successful professionals later in life, and parent volunteers have begun second careers.
For Terrence J. Nolen, Producing Artist Director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theater, his love of theater began when he was 11 years old and was part of the first group to participate in Summer Stage. He continued with the program for the next 10 seasons.
“Those summers shaped me — as Summer Stage has done for so many kids,” says Nolen. “Now, 35 years later, I still look back on that first summer as one of the most magical of my life. Harry Dietzler is a hero. And I am reminded of that when I take my own kids to Summer Stage and see how the program is thriving.”
Andrew Thompson, Studio 3 Technical Director and Assistant Technical Director at Walnut Street Theater, spent 14 summers at Summer Stage beginning when he was eleven years old. That first summer changed his life. He became one of the youngest back stage managers, working behind the scenes for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” in 1987, working with Tina Fey. When he was fourteen years old, Dietzler offered Thompson a technical internship handling props, painting, working on the sound board, and helping with lighting. He was hooked.
“My parents dropped me off at nine in the morning and then would try to track me down at eight o’clock at night to get me to come home. I loved it and didn’t want to be anywhere else,” says Thompson. “Even as a teenager, Harry saw something in me at an early age that he brought out which is not easy to do. He recognized my love of back stage management and found a way to make it work for me, giving me responsibility first with the internship and the next year as a staff member.”
A Staff of 90 Professionals
The young participants learn from a staff of 90 professionals. After 35 years, Dietzler continues to be the individual the staff members turn to for input, advice and feedback. On any given day, Dietzler is at his computer editing music for one of the Children’s Theater shows, updating the web site, reviewing show notes with a director, conferring with the box office staff, and brainstorming with the publicity team on developing a video.
Dietzler sets high standards of excellence and teaches by example by respecting those around him, sharing his love of the arts, and teaching the participants and the staff members the importance of working together as a team.
“’Check your ego at the door’ is a motto we’ve used around here since day one. Our job as teachers,” says Dietzler during staff orientation, “is to bring out the best in the young people who participate. Our mission is to turn young people on to the magic of theater while making them feel great about themselves. Our task is how we accomplish this purpose by building the sets, teaching the choreography, rehearsing the lines. But we don’t want to get so caught up the task that we lose site of the mission.”
A Family Environment
Dietzler grew up in Drexel Hill and graduated from Monsignor Bonner High School (and was inducted into Bonner’s Hall of Fame in 2003). From the beginning, he has surrounded himself with family members. During the early years, his wife Dottie and his sisters were involved in many of the productions. Later, his children spent their summers at Summer Stage. Dietzler’s five children are now 19 through 28 years old, and they continue to be involved with the program directing, choreographing, or producing web and video content.
Three of Dietzler’s children are teachers, following in their father’s footsteps. His oldest son, Brian, is a music teacher at Sun Valley High School in Aston. Brian remembers how his father, an excellent pianist, would often be found playing and singing at the piano at home and at parties.
“His sense of spirit and dedication to children, both publicly and with his own children has inspired me to teach,” says the younger Dietzler.
“When you are a part of his program at Summer Stage, you are a part of a family who loves bringing the magic of theater to other families who come to see the shows each summer,” says Alyse Alan Louis who is now staring as Sophie in “Mamma Mia” on Broadway.
“It’s only fitting that at the end of each summer, Summer Stagers and alumni sing ‘To Fill the World with Love,’ ” add Alan Louis. This song was featured in the movie, “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” The lyrics focus on the three stages of life and how the goal of our lives should be to fill the world with love “our whole life through.”
“This song captures what Harry is all about,” continues Ms. Louis, “because he, through Summer Stage, gets to do exactly this – he fills the hearts of young and old alike with not only a love of theatre and performing but also a love that comes of family and true friendships. This love keeps the Summer Stage magic alive not only in the summer but throughout the year and ‘our whole lives through.’ “
by – Lauren Stevenson Yacina