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The captain of my destiny

A grown-up is still drawn to the pirate who got him hooked on theater as a kid.

By Gabriel L. Nathan

Some people try to hang on to their youth by driving fast cars, watching ESPN all day, or wearing madras shorts to work. I'm trying a different tack: working with children and playing in Neverland.

I work for a nonprofit children's performing arts center in Wynnewood called Wolf PAC, which was founded by Bobbi Wolf, a retired Bala Cynwyd Middle School teacher.

I first met Bobbi Wolf when I was 11 years old - a petrified sixth grader navigating his way among new hallways and new faces. Having just auditioned for Li'l Abner, the school musical for 1991, I missed the late bus home and was in middle-school tears over my irresponsibility. Bobbi waited with me until my sister could pick me up. We chatted, and she made me forget how upset I was.

I was cast in a minor speaking role in Li'l Abner, an Indian named Lonesome Polecat. I think I had a couple of lines about Kickapoo Joy Juice, which my character brewed with his friend Hairless Joe. Even as a young kid, I knew Li'l Abner wasn't very good.

The next year, though, Bobbi cast me as Captain Hook in her production of Peter Pan, which was very good. Never one to settle for a typical cute middle-school show, Bobbi brought in Flying by Foy, the professional stage-effects company that made Mary Martin fly on Broadway.

I remember my mother asking me if I were jealous of the kids playing Wendy, Michael, John, Peter, and Liza the maid - the ones who got to fly. "No way, Mommy" I said. "I just want to be Captain Hook forever."

And - wouldn't you know it? - 18 years later, here I am about to don the long, curly, black wig again, about to slide my feet back into a pair of comically oversize black boots and slip on a red jacket dripping with gold braiding.

Curl the mustache. Bring back the scowl. Roll the Rrrrr's. And put on the hook.

And, at the helm of the show once again is Bobbi Wolf, my teacher, mentor, boss, and friend.

In 2005, when Wolf PAC opened its doors and I started working there, it was only to teach theater classes once or twice a week. I was working full-time as an emergency medical technician and would frequently fly through the door just in time - often still in uniform. Then Bobbi offered me a part-time job in the office, and I quit ambulance work. Then it was full-time in the office, more classes, assistant directing, the summer program, and appearing on stage with the kids.

I thought she might do Peter Pan again one day. I didn't think it would be so soon. But here we are: two casts of 50 children and one semi-adult. Ready to fly.

Peter Pan talks of Neverland as a place where "you can never, never grow old." For me, Wolf PAC is a kind of Neverland. Here I am having just turned 30, with a wife and a car and a mortgage, and I'm still mincing and prancing about in a wig and a hook - all under the direction of the most important woman in my life, besides my mother and my wife.

Being Captain Hook at Bala Cynwyd Middle School changed my life. I would not be who I am if Bobbi had not cast me in the role. I probably wouldn't have auditioned for another show, majored in theater, written and directed my own shows in college, or found my niche as a comic lead in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which I appear in all over the Delaware Valley. It was Hook who started it all.

Every now and then, when my wife and I are out shopping at the market or just walking around the neighborhood, a stranger will stop me and ask if I played Captain Hook at B.C. "Do you get how unbelievable that is?" my wife asked me once, adding, "That's not normal."

I'll never forget one night after the show at Bala Cynwyd, when I was in a classroom removing the layers of makeup with a scratchy middle-school paper towel, and a middle-aged man I had never met burst through the door. He ran up to me and hugged me, actually lifting me off the ground. He looked at me with a blissful smile for a moment or two, hugged me again, put me down, and left the room.

All these years later, I don't know if I'll still be able to affect people like that. Maybe something's gone now - a child's charm, or whatever it was - but I'm sure going to try my best, for the audience, for Bobbi, and for me. I'm reasonably convinced that being Captain Hook at Wolf Performing Arts Center will change my life all over again.

I have, of course, grown up. But - I'll be damned - the hook still fits.