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WRITTEN BY MISHA BERSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JIMI LOTT
Many years later, that wistful child has become a very well-traveled adult. She has ventured to Japan, to Prague, to Holland, Spain and other foreign lands, often as a welcomed cultural emissary. But even when at home in Seattle, just a few miles south of where she grew up, she's come farther than she ever would have imagined.
Her name is Linda Hartzell. An apple-cheeked, vivacious woman of 53, she now presides over a world of story and fantasy as the dedicated, celebrated head of a Northwest cultural treasure, Seattle Children's Theatre. During her 17 years in charge, Hartzell has nurtured the theater into one of the nation's leading drama companies for young people. Once a lively but broke troupe working out of a well-worn hall at Woodland Park Zoo, SCT has blossomed into a Seattle Center mainstay with a $5.4-million budget, a staff of 80 and a state-of the-art, two-theater playhouse with an annual attendance of 280,000.
Not much given to shining the spotlight on herself, Hartzell takes quiet pride in all of this. She's proud, too, of having won the respect of children, parents, educators and theatrical peers for mounting highly polished shows that don't talk down to kids or sell their intelligence and imagination short from non-cutsie versions of "Winnie the Pooh" and "Charlotte's Web" to sophisticated condensations of "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Romeo and Juliet."
In action rehearsing a workshop of the upcoming fantasy drama "Holes," this self-assured director pleasantly but firmly guides a group of young male actors through the complex production. Hartzell knows just the effects she wants onstage, and she goes about achieving them with the brisk confidence of a successful artist in her element.
But how she got to where she is, what she overcame to get there, is nearly as compelling as what she's built. It is a sometimes dark but ultimately inspiring tale of family dysfunction, alcoholism and violence, of balancing single motherhood with the demands of art, of breaking through in a tough, male-dominated field with one's humanity intact. It's a story about a woman of sweetness and spine whose compassionate devotion to young people is hard-earned. And it's a story the gregarious yet deeply private Hartzell hasn't shared in public. Not wanting to appear poor-me, she does so now only because she's been asked.
Tight shoes and all, Joe caught the fancy of young Darlene Law, a Spokane native of Scottish-Irish extraction, who worked in a Lewiston, Idaho, daycare center. When Joe said blithely he'd marry Darlene the next time he saw her, she took him at his word. She showed up with marriage on her mind when he returned from combat duty in Guam, in 1945.
The newlyweds moved back East to Chester, where Joe worked as a machinist and Darlene gave birth to Linda in 1948, daughter Susan five years later and son Joe a year after that.
Her parents' marriage was always rocky. "Things were not good, you could tell," she recalls. "One moment it would feel OK. But my Dad was an alcoholic, and as a child you were always afraid something awful was going to happen. Because there were bad scenes often."
In 1957, the family moved to Everett. Her father worked hard all week as a machinist, but drank steadily all weekend. "He was a mean drunk and physically abusive to my mother, though never to me," Hartzell says. "So I became the funny one in the family, the nurturer, the one who makes everything OK and everybody laugh. That's typical of children of alcoholics, particularly the eldest. It's textbook.
Still, along with the torment, there was much affection: "Look, my folks really, really loved their kids, and they made me feel like the most beautiful, the most gifted, the most wonderful person in the world. During the week, when he was sober, my Dad was so funny and playful. My Mom sang in a trio, like the Andrews Sisters. They weren't into art or books or high culture, but there was laughter, music and silliness in the house. I remember really happy times with my Dad watching Sid Caesar on TV, old Charlie Chaplin movies, Ed Sullivan's show."
Early on, Hartzell had a yen to clown around, too. "The first time I got a laugh I was 5. I told a joke at a big Thanksgiving family dinner. Everybody stopped, watched me and laughed. I thought, o-o-o-kay . . . This is great!"
By fourth grade, she was producing and starring in classroom versions of "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Hansel and Gretel." And by middle school, Hartzell had a part-time carhop job at Dog 'N Suds drive-in, appeared in school shows, and was "Miss Perfect, Miss Goody Two-Shoes, Miss Head of Everything. I was going to make everybody in the whole world laugh."
She found several key adult mentors, including her drama teacher at Lynnwood's Meadowdale High School, Bill Crossett. Hartzell was an initially timid but vibrant teenager, he says. "She had this tremendous sense of humor. She was in the chorus when we did 'Finian's Rainbow,' and stood out with this wonderful presence, this pizzazz. When we did 'Boys From Syracuse' she got a big part, sang a featured number, and was terrific."
But troubled it was. Her father continued to drink heavily. "I stayed really busy, and the rest of the time I practically lived at the movies," Hartzell says. "Anything anything to get out of the house."
After high school, she went as far away as she could get to Washington State University in Pullman, on an academic scholarship. "I never, never thought theater was something I'd do for a living. I thought for sure I'd be a lawyer, or a historian. But I'd always been such a goody-goody in school that when I got to WSU I just went wild! I partied a lot, skipped classes and blew my scholarship."
She also auditioned badly for a part in an acting class, and was told by a teacher, "You have no talent." Deflated, Hartzell didn't perform for four years. But after transferring to the University of Washington, she signed up for an acting class, and things started turning around.
"I had great, encouraging drama teachers at UW," Hartzell recalls, "professional actors and directors like Ted D'Arms, Eve Roberts, Greg Falls. But I still didn't believe I'd ever work in theater. I thought I'd be a teacher, so I majored in education and drama."
Fellow student Chad Henry says Hartzell "seemed very shy, extremely self-conscious then. I never would have pegged her as someone who'd find success in the theater, though she obviously loved it."
Indeed, while most of her UW friends were off forming theater troupes and protesting the Vietnam War, Hartzell got married at 21 to a public-school teacher, Will Hartzell, and had a son, Adam. "I was a stay-at-home mom, counting checks at night for Seafirst Bank to make money. Then one day a friend called and said, 'I'm doing this late-night show at Empty Space Theatre. Want to be in it?' "
Back then, in 1974, the Empty Space on Capitol Hill was the hippest stage in town, a haven for such zesty talents as Lori Larsen, John Aylward and Kurt Beattie. The late-night show Hartzell joined was the wacky revue "Cheez Whiz, or Puttin'on the Ritz."
"The most astonishing thing about Linda, which most people don't know," says "Cheez Whiz" castmate Beattie, now associate artistic director of A Contemporary Theatre, "is what an incredible singing voice she has. She sang 'Ain't Misbehavin' in that show and knocked our socks off."
Co-actor Steve Tomkins, who now heads Issaquah's Village Theatre, recalls Hartzell as "very, very nervous at the time, because she hadn't done much onstage. She was always terribly self-effacing and apologetic, but so funny."
Then, it happened.
On a visit to her parents' Stanwood home one day, Hartzell noticed that her mother's face was badly bruised. "Mom lied again, said she had tripped and fallen, but I knew my Dad had hit her. I'd begged her so many times to leave, but she always covered for him."
Hartzell's mother enjoyed babysitting for 18-month-old Adam, and, insisting everything would be fine, begged to be allowed to continue. Not long after, Hartzell allowed Adam to stay overnight at his grandparents' house. When she came to fetch him the next day, her teenage brother met her at the door.
"Mom's dead," he told her. "Dad shot her."
"Apparently my Dad was very drunk, and was outside shooting his gun in the air to get their horse back into the corral," Hartzell explains 26 years later. "He went into the kitchen and Mom said, 'Is that gun loaded?' Dad got real belligerent with her, told her no, then pulled the trigger. If they'd been in Seattle, she would have lived. But it took an hour for an ambulance to get to her."
On April 13, 1975, a short item in an Everett newspaper reported that police booked Joseph Stanley Misiuda, 51, into the Snohomish County Jail on murder charges. It identified the victim as 52-year-old Darlene Misiuda.
Sitting in her own pretty, quiet North Seattle living room with its Puget Sound view and array of family pictures, including some of her parents, Hartzell relates the story evenly until she recalls seeing her distraught father in court. Then the tears come. "We all stood up for him, because it wasn't premeditated, just the bad judgment of a drunk," she says. Joe Misiuda was convicted of second-degree manslaughter, and served a short jail term. "He loved her, and felt terrible about everything," his daughter says now. "Then he went through detox in jail, and an alcohol program, and I finally got to know my real Dad. When he died of a heart attack at 68, I was really sad.
Used to deflecting despair and self-pity with hard work and a zany, self-deprecating wit, Hartzell insists she didn't have it so bad as a kid. "Many children have it so much worse than I did." Still, those years have left their mark.
"I'm very careful when our theater does plays with difficult subjects," Hartzell says. "We adults forget, when we do a play about child abuse or addiction or some other horrific thing, that one out of 10 kids seeing it have to go home to the same problem that night. For this reason, every single play we do gives the child some little sense of hope that life can get better."
If children in difficult straits glean hope from her story, Hartzell will be gratified. But she also wants "some parents to take a hard look at themselves, and remember how crucial it is to be responsible, honest adults, and role models for their kids."
Hartzell did not sink into despondency because of the tragedy in her family. But she abruptly ended her marriage to Will Hartzell. "He's a great, sweet guy," she offers. "I just went a little crazy after Mom's death."
And, she admits now that as a struggling single parent and busy theater worker, she wasn't always the "perfect" mother. "I dragged Adam with me a lot to work, and still feel guilty about that," she confesses. "I'd take him in his little Snoopy sleeping bag to rehearsals with me. At age 4 he'd say, 'Mom, the pace of Act II is too slow.' " But she's very proud that today, at 27, he is a "healthy, happy person," an investment banker in New York.
For his part, Adam acknowledges resenting how much time she spent at the theater "it was all-consuming to her." But all grown up, he appreciates the example she set.
"One memory I have is of when I was going through a tough time myself, and Mom told me, 'Look, you can either be a victim or a survivor. I chose to be a survivor, and you can, too.'
"My mother deals with the world from a position of strength," he says. "And I admire that about her very much."
After the shooting, Hartzell revealed her strength by throwing herself, full-force, into Seattle's amped-up theater scene: acting in more shows, then jump-starting a directing career with a peppy version of "The Pajama Game" at a Snoqualmie Falls theater.
Her star rose as she won kudos directing hit shows at Group Theatre, Skid Road Theatre and Pioneer Square Theater where she staged the biggest smash in Seattle theater history, a spoofy, feminist, punk-rock musical by AM Collins and Chad Henry called "Angry Housewives." It ran here eight years, and is still performed nationwide.
To make ends meet, Hartzell also spent a decade teaching drama at Lakeside School, "where I learned so much about kids, and about my craft. You learn composition when you're moving 40 kids around onstage." Another steady gig in the '70s was acting with a frisky, city-financed ensemble that performed smart plays for young folk, at the Poncho Theater in Woodland Park Zoo. She met her second husband, Waldorf School teacher Mark Perry, in a Poncho version of "Cinderella." But by 1984, the group, known as the Seattle Children's Theatre, had lost its city financing and its artistic director.
"I was hunting for someone to fill the void," says veteran children's theater board member Eleanor Nolan, "and Linda Hartzell's name kept coming up. People raved about her. At first she told me, 'I can't do it. I don't even know what an artistic director does.' She didn't even have a résumé."
But Hartzell was asked to dance again, and she soon whirled into action and took the gig. Over time, she managed to increase the pay for the actors, raise more local and national funding, beef up the theater school (which now serves 3,600 kids a year) and use her sharp instincts ("I'm basically an entrepreneur") to create some savvy, populist programming.
Example: Through sheer moxie, Hartzell persuaded basketball great Bill Russell to star in "The Former One-on-One Basketball Champion," a terrific publicity ploy. She also invited major playwrights (John Olive, Steven Dietz, Len Jenkin) to write new scripts for youths, thus blurring the hard line between children's drama and adult theater.
She lured kids to their first live shows with titles they'd recognize ("Little Lulu," "Treasure Island," "The Hardy Boys"), and tackled sensitive topics onstage the internment of Japanese Americans (in "Naomi's Road"), civil rights ("Little Rock"), the plight of Native-American children ("The Rememberer"). The theater's Deaf Youth Drama Program became a national model.
But Hartzell's biggest legacy to Seattle Children's Theatre will likely be her championing of the $12 million Charlotte Martin Theatre, the attractive and versatile complex the company built in 1993. (The gleaming Allen Pavilion, the company's new technical facility, opened next door last year.)
Says Peter Donnelly, head of Seattle's Corporate Council for the Arts: "The children's theater was on the verge of dissolving, and Linda turned it into something marvelous. She's very hands-on, very engaged on every front. She works as hard as anyone I know."
On a recent workday, you might have found Hartzell calmly conducting a technical rehearsal in the Charlotte Martin Theatre, or looking in on preparations for another director's show, in the smaller Eve Alvord theater.
Or you might have tracked her down to a spiffy theater conference room, sitting before a dollhouse-sized scale model of a stage set, swapping ideas with scenic designer Carey Wong.
Or you could have caught up with her out in the community, graciously representing SCT and accepting another honor for her contributions to the local arts scene. (Earlier this year she received the Gregory A. Falls Sustained Achievement Award from Theatre Puget Sound.)
Wherever Hartzell is these days, she tends to exude good cheer and a passionate concern for young people. Around the theater, colleagues know her as a warm-hearted earth mother and relentless dynamo.
"When the big earthquake happened in Seattle last spring, I was rehearsing a show at SCT," recalls Seattle actor-director Jeff Steitzer. "Linda came in and hugged everybody and said, 'This has been scary, so we have to be really good to each other.' She's the sort of person who'll bring in fruit for the actors, she'll bring in rolls."
"Linda is very warm, very generous but she has a tough side, too," notes composer and former classmate Chad Henry. "When she plants her feet in the ground and decides to do something, you don't mess with her."
While the grit and the hustle are still there, Hartzell admits to "working 45 hours a week now, instead of 60," thanks in good part to her reliance on two trusted artistic associates, Rita Giomi and Deborah Frockt. This year Hartzell will direct only two SCT shows: Henry's "The Hoboken Chicken Emergency" and "Holes," by award-wining children's author Louis Sachar. She'll take more time to read (books on politics and history are favorites), to travel, to stop and smell the roses in her lush new garden.
Moreover, Hartzell says she has come to terms with her turbulent past. And talking about it now is "part of my healing process."
The once-upon-a-time fearful little girl has grown up to be a confident, accomplished woman. And though she's skeptical about happy-ever-after endings, Linda Hartzell thinks every child deserves some hope.
"I never promise kids a happy ending, because in the '50s we were promised that and it often didn't happen," she muses. "But kids aren't cynical. They're usually loyal and trustworthy, even in the worst circumstances. And they need to hear that life can get better, if they just hold on."
Misha Berson is theater critic for The Seattle Times. Jimi Lott is a Times staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then||Sunday Punch|