When Paul Tischer came to Modesto in 1965, it wasn’t to teach theater.
Sure, now the Modesto High School theater bears his name and the community theater company he founded has been going for a half century.
But when Tischer came to Modesto it was to teach wood shop, of all things. Of course, that all soon changed. By the spring semester of his first year, he had taken over the school’s theater department. And three years later, he launched Modesto Youth Theater, which about 10 years later would become Modesto Performing Arts. Now the city’s longest-running continuous community theater troupe celebrates with a 50th-anniversary gala concert.
The show will amass talent from the group’s past and present and offer a chronological retrospective of its storied history. Five decades’ worth of talent, over 150 performers, will take part in the celebration Saturday, April 22, at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
Tischer, who stages two musicals each summer and one during the holidays with Modesto Performing Arts, still feels the same passion for the stage he did when he started. Now retired from teaching at Modesto High, the 75-year-old said musical theater is all he ever wanted to do.
“I love it, I have a great time. It’s the most magical thing. I just get so excited watching performances,” he said.
Since founding Modesto Performing Arts, Tischer continues to serve as its general director. The scrappy company runs on donations, ticket sales, a dedicated board and lots of community support. The center called Modesto High’s namesake Paul F. Tischer Theatre home until 2007, when it became one of the Gallo Center resident companies. Generations of talent have cycled across and behind its stage. Elementary kids became high schoolers who became college students who became adults. Some have gone on to work professionally, a few even making it to Broadway.
Performers will be coming from New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and as far away as Russia to take part in the gala concert.
“It’s exciting, some of these people I haven’t seen in 20, 30, 40 years. The whole cast will be on stage three times, all 150 singers together,” Tischer said. “We’re going to have more talent on that stage than the stage will ever have again.”
Among those returning are Oakdale native Colleen Hawks Pierce and her husband, Jeff Pierce. The couple met during a Modesto Performing Arts production of “Oklahoma!” in 2002. They now live and perform in New York, and Hawks Pierce has been in three Broadway shows: “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “The Boy from Oz” and “Shrek the Musical.”
“The fact that they’re able to hire professional actors definitely raises the level. It gives young kids interested in theater a chance to mingle and see people who are doing it for a living,” she said. “I think it’s a really great opportunity to just immerse yourself in theater. I can’t say enough good about it. It’s a very well-run and well-respected theater. It definitely serves the community, and that’s really what it’s for.”
Unlike many other community theaters, Modesto Performing Arts is able to bring professional performers in, including equity actors, through agreements with unions. The company also uses a full community orchestra that plays live during performances.
Among those who went from young theater hopeful to professional in the company’s ranks is Modesto-raised actress Krista Joy Serpa, who now works largely in the Bay Area. The Modesto High graduate was in her first Modesto Performing Arts production as a high school student. Last summer, she starred in the company’s fourth revival of “Oklahoma!”
“MPA is part of the heartbeat of the Modesto community. I think that is really heartwarming to see how many people’s lives have been changed by it. It really does change people’s lives and not just professionally, but personally. People have made lifelong friendships because of this organization,” Serpa said. “These are the people who do MPA every year because they love it. It’s like a family and a home. It’s all heart.”
The concert will bring many of those performers back, as well as showcase those in the community who continue to help MPA succeed. Some 40 solo vocalists will perform and the 150-member combined ensemble and company chorus will be directed by Candy Chamberlain, of Chamberlain Vocal Arts youth choir. Dance Factory founder and owner Debbie Holtzclaw will lead 25 MPA dancers, and Central West Ballet company principals Nicole Firpo and Grant Lando will perform solo dances.
Modesto-based opera singer Roy Stevens has assembled the gala guest performers list and also will take part along with his wife, Annalisa Winberg. Stevens remembers starting with then Modesto Youth Theater as a fourth-grader playing a workhouse gang member in the group’s 1970 production of “Oliver!” The company will present “Oliver!” again this June.
“A lot of people are excited. I just wanted to help make it possible for as many people as possible to have another Modesto Youth Theatre or Modesto Performing Arts experience and an opportunity to get yelled at by Paul Tischer one more time,” Stevens joked.
Tischer said moving forward, he plans to be a little more adventurous with his show selection. The company has become known for staging popular, tried-and-true Broadway favorites like “The Sound of Music,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” This season’s second show in August will be the more contemporary Broadway breakout “Billy Elliot.” But his criteria for selecting any show remains the same.
“I have to be excited about it. Is this a show I want to do? A show has to be fun,” he said. “Then that fun is reflected in the performance. If you don’t have fun, the audience doesn’t have fun.”
Tischer said he plans to keep producing Modesto Performing Arts as long as he can. And he even still puts those old woodworking skills to use, building and designing sets to this day.
“I’m really proud of the people who have gone on to professional theater and Broadway who got their start here with us,” he said. “I think we do Broadway better than anyone else here. I hope we don’t look too much like a community theater.”