Phil Stewart, Horace Greeley High School Drama Coach 1968

When Phil Stewart came to Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, NY in 1967 as the NEW Drama Coach, I don’t think he had ANY idea what he was in for. I was starting my junior year and during that previous summer I’d been part of one of the madder projects I’ve ever been involved with – the making of the EPIC film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Snodgrass” directed by upcoming senior Chuck Nyren with a cast of DOZENS. We had no horse for our Canadian non-mounty Ned Neverfear, but we had a gaggle of saloon dancing girls, keystone kops, bank robbers, Derwood DirtyDeed in cloak and top hat and twirling moustache, cowboys, an Arabian shiek, you name it, we HAD IT…..all silent with placards and music by Chris Kubie…..all on our own. *I* was the heroine, Guinevere St Sweetvoice, with much batting of eyelashes. We showed it a gazillion times at the start of that next school year.  Phil was going to have his hands seriously full with this crowd….

The homecoming show that year was SOMEthing else…..I tried out by singing at the TOP of my lungs doing “Nobody, no NOOOOOObody….Is GONNNA RAIN-ON….MYYYYYYYY PARRRRRRAAAAAAAADE!!!!” and earned the position of choreographer…..(I don’t want to talk about it) My JOB as choreographer was to CHOREOGRAPH and COACH the varsity football team doing SWANLAKE. Memorable to be sure.  They quacked, they honked, they were magnificent, totally brought down the house.  That same homecoming show, having been introduced to “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” off Broadway, our Grand Finale in that tender year of 1967 had us entering the auditorium aisles bearing carnations which we handed out to the audience and then the entire huge tribe of us went up on stage and sang “If We Only Have LOVE” – a song that will still reduce me to blubbering tears to this day BECAUSE of that performance.

We…..were…..STOKED.

The BIG production that year stood Chappaqua on its ear and set the bar for everything that came after. Phil had us do A Midsummer Night’s Dream in FULL rented costumes (no ‘high school production’ this!) With the aforementioned Chuck Nyren bellowing his way through portraying Bottom and my small self playing PUCK, Babby Miller, David Lindquist, Andi Shapiro and John Baker as the lovers, Andrea Aasen as Titania and Chris Barns (our Derwood DirtyDeed from said epic film) as Oberon, and LOTS of others, Phil WORKED us until he got WAY more than anyone was expecting from a “High School Play” – even attempting Shakespeare.

As my character was not particularly HUMAN, Phil had me come TEARING down the aisle, screeching to a halt mid-stage and shouting out 12 lines of Shakespeare WITHOUT being winded. And when I couldn’t do it, he’d calmly say “Cut, start it again.” and make me do it again…..and again……and again until I FOUND a way to control my breath.

Once in a GREAT while, if you’re REALLY lucky, you meet up with a teacher who reaches in and bloody well changes your life. I know for a fact that I am not the ONLY one who would say that about Phil. He had a way of RECOGNIZING what he knew we were capable of and by doing quite the balancing act of praising and challenging, he’d GET it. Nobody had ever done that with me before.

One of the reasons that I think so many of us from this particular high school and from this particular time are STILL so close (and it’s not all Facebook) is because this huge group of kids (mind you, sans email or cell phones) worked incredibly hard on a common goal. That year, he TOLD us that when this show was done, we’d feel like an old friend had died. That thought HIT me, ON stage, as Puck ends the final performance of the show all alone, with (his) broom over (his) shoulder “Give me your hands, If we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends.” I almost didn’t get the last words out. Phil was right. He usually was.

That same first year, 1968, ZaZa Terzian and I masterminded a birthday cake for Phil and plotted a major surprise off in K building during one of our drama classes. We sneaked the cake into the projection booth and…….lit the candles……

……………in the projection booth…………….

 NEEDLESS to say, we managed to set off the fire alarm and Phil’s party THAT year moved out to the entire parking lot of the school as a fire drill.

Phil Stewart is celebrating his 80th birthday this year on April 30th . MANY of those years were spent with MANY more classes before and beyond the Horace Greeley classes of ’68 and ’69. I was going to scan all the photos I have from those shows and just send them to him, but I decided to put this out where EVERYone can read it. (and besides, I put that folder of photos SO far ‘aside’ meaning to scan all the photos that I can’t FIND it at the moment!)

Those of us who were in those first Chappaqua Classes are in our sixties now ourselves. Way back when our class of ’69 had our 30-something-th reunion and I told other friends about it, they were AMAZED that as a group we actually got together and truly ENJOYED each other’s company. I told them then and I’ll say it now. I’m sure that much of it had to do with spending those incredibly intense years bonded with each other, with Phil and with whatever show we were living at the time. THAT is the stuff that carries on decades later.

Many years after I’d graduated, I had the chance to ask Phil if he was ever disappointed that I never became an actress. I needed to HEAR this answer from HIM. He said that he never doubted for a minute that I had the talent, but he always knew I didn’t have the chops for the BIZ of acting. I knew that was absolutely true. I still needed to hear it from HIM.

After I graduated High School and bombed out of one wretched semester at Hofstra University in the theatah dept, I joined a local theater company who was doing Sweet Charity, one of my ALL time faves. I KNEW I could play Charity. I just KNEW it. What I didn’t know was that the director’s wife was going to get the lead and I, talented little me, would get SEVEN other parts, including the woman who walks a dog across the stage in a crowd scene. I gritted my teeth and elaborately imagined the broken ankle the director’s wife WOULD show up with one of the days and (even though I wasn’t even the understudy) I would leap up and SAVE the performance. It didn’t happen. (funny thing) I got to dance Bob Fosse choreography and was SO type-cast as Rosie, the NEW girl at the dance hall all nervous with a big bow in my hair.

Why am I dragging this up? I KNEW the one night that Phil was in the house. I gathered up my SEVEN different parts and I gave them everything I had, because even though I didn’t get a BIG part, I really wanted to make him proud. And I did. And he told me that I just SHONE there even in the chorus line. THAT’s the way Phil touched MY life.

For ONE birthday a bunch of years ago, right after Phil had done a whole thing with  Vanessa Williams for one of those Target ‘Favorite Teacher’ photos, a LARGE bunch of us figured out how to plaster our OWN  faces over Vanessa’s and  mail copies of them to him. Funny stuff.

But having him as a part of our lives during a time that was so intense both historically and personally, was really and truly SOMEthing; and although I’ve certainly thought of it often over the years, I want to take advantage of this 80th birthday to TELL you out loud, Phil. In just those two years you made a tremendous impact on my life that I carry to this day. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that, deeply. I could have said this on any given Tuesday, I suppose, but the big EIGHT-OH kind of gives it a push to actually happen, kind of like a fire drill in the parking lot……

Happy HAPPY Birthday, Phil Stewart!  (cue standing ovation)

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