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For 35 years, Upper Darby Summer Stage is Harry Dietzler's world

The music man of Upper Darby Township used to be a Winthrop. Harry Dietzler, executive director of the Upper Darby Summer Stage community theater program, saw himself as the shy little boy in Meredith Willson's Broadway musical about a shifty salesman of band instruments.

Harry Dietzler addresses the audience after a student performance. Summer theater, he says, is "for kids to find their own confidence and to blossom into their own personalities."
Harry Dietzler addresses the audience after a student performance. Summer theater, he says, is "for kids to find their own confidence and to blossom into their own personalities."Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer

The music man of Upper Darby Township used to be a Winthrop.

Harry Dietzler, executive director of the Upper Darby Summer Stage community theater program, saw himself as the shy little boy in Meredith Willson's Broadway musical about a shifty salesman of band instruments.

"My sisters would put on a show in the backyard, and my contribution was putting the needle on the record," said Dietzler, 55, of Upper Darby.

Since then, he has overseen hundreds of shows at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center and has changed from a bashful Winthrop to an upstanding version of The Music Man's Professor Harold Hill, selling the virtues of musical theater to anyone who will listen.

Dietzler and Upper Darby are celebrating 35 years of the children's and community theater program, which he founded when he was a Temple University music major.

Upper Darby Summer Stage produces seven musicals - six for children - and offers an arts and theater program for students, most of whom are cast in its productions.

Last year, 30,000 people bought tickets to productions by Dietzler and his staff of 90. About 700 youngsters participate.

"Harry is just a gem," Upper Darby Mayor Thomas N. Micozzie said. "Kids who could be hanging on the street corner are backstage making costumes for the shows. The atmosphere is an amazing thing to have in a community of our size."

Program alumni include actress-writer Tina Fey; Terrence J. Nolen and his wife, Amy Murphy, founders of the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia; and Alyse Alan Louis, who is starring as Sophie in the Broadway production of Mamma Mia!

Dietzler was just a Temple junior when he persuaded Upper Darby officials to give him $4,000 to put on a show.

"I wanted other kids to have that same experience that I did," Dietzler said.

He had developed a love of theater by way of his parents, Charles and Mary Anne, who met while performing in a Gilbert and Sullivan production.

The oldest of nine children, Dietzler began taking piano lessons at 12. When he enrolled at Monsignor Bonner High School in Upper Darby, he met theater pro Joe Hayes, who helped Dietzler overcome his shyness.

"He made [the high school show] seem like it was going to be the best thing ever," Dietzler said.

Caught up in Hayes' excitement, Dietzler got a part in a music revue and remembers riding a trolley to his first show and carrying his costume.

Hayes later drafted Dietzler to play piano at the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, N.J., and the college student discovered the kind of community theater that would serve as Upper Darby's model.

"When I did shows, that's where I got my confidence," Dietzler said. "Summer stage isn't about training professional actors or giving kids false dreams. It's for kids to find their own confidence and to blossom into their own personalities."

Back home, an emboldened Dietzler started Summer Stage. During the 1977 season, Dietzler met his wife, Dottie, when she tap-danced in a Summer Stage production of No, No, Nanette. The couple has five children; all have been involved in theater and Summer Stage.

Although the program's goal isn't to churn out Broadway - or Hollywood - babies, Dietzler has had a few.

He saw the star power in Louis and her sister Jillian, who is also a professional actress. But Dietzler missed the bright-lights potential of Fey, he said. He described her as "kind of shy, but always funny and hysterical."

Fey's dad, Don, took her to a performance of Oliver! when she was 9, and she was hooked. She got involved in productions, working her way up to directing.

"As a mom now, I look back on what Harry and Summer Stage offer the community and it blows my mind," Fey said in a statement. "You didn't just perform, you worked in the box office, you worked in the costume shop, you taught what you were learning to the younger kids. . . . Most of us Summer Stagers went on to careers in fields other than entertainment, but the life skills we learned from Harry's program were invaluable."

This season includes Cinderella, West Side Story, and Magic Up Our Sleeve, a kind of revue of Dietzler's and Summer Stage's greatest hits.

The program, supported by about $430,000 from the township, reimburses the municipality through grants and ticket sales.

Over the years, Dietzler has mellowed from the days when a sound glitch or lighting mishap could unleash a shouting fit. Luckily, he said, he was surrounded by coworkers who didn't hesitate to put him in check.

One day, Dietzler expects to retire from Summer Stage, maybe to play in a band, like many of his musician friends.

"I miss having my hands on a piano every day," Dietzler said. But for now, he said, he's happy to stick around and oversee Summer Stage's next act.