Chatsworth Teacher Gives Students Push to Stardom

Waldman is a North Hollywood free-lance writer.

Recently, Robert Carrelli has thought a great deal about Mare Winningham.

Carrelli, head of the Chatsworth High School drama department for 20 years, directed the Emmy Award-winning actress in a production of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" during the late 1970s. He is directing the same play--set to open Dec. 2--with a new group of students.

But the memory of Winningham's brilliance remains strong.

"Mare's audition for 'Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' was what I expected at a performance level," he said. She came in cold and read as if she had been rehearsing for weeks, Carrelli recalled.

Winningham, Chatsworth Class of '77, is among a number of celebrities who have trained with Carrelli. Stepfanie Kramer, co-star of the NBC series "Hunter," and Val Kilmer, who jousted with Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," also graduated from the school.

Still Keep in Touch

Few other high schools in the San Fernando Valley have sent as many drama students into movies and television as Chatsworth High. Many of his famous students still keep in touch with Carrelli, 56.

"Bob has a marvelous gift for opening up the talent that is within young people," said Kramer, Class of '74. "He offers students a profound sense of support."

After this year, however, it will be up to someone else to maintain the standards. Carrelli and his wife, who is also a teacher, are planning to teach drama overseas. "I want to leave while the magic is still there," said Carrelli.

Hollywood will be sad to see him go. But rival high schools in Southern California might be pleased.

Chatsworth routinely does well in major competitions. In October, for example, the school placed second at the 45th annual Drama Festival sponsored by local high school drama teachers. Sixty-two Southern California high schools competed.

Over the years, the drama department has performed many shows that go beyond the standard repertoire of high school theater. Carrelli's willingness to take these chances has gained him the respect of colleagues.

"I don't think other high schools would do things as challenging as 'Equus'," noted Jim Bell, head of the drama department at Palos Verdes High School.

Carrelli's large office is decorated with posters from many of these productions. But the wall above his desk is specially reserved for the pictures of famed alumni. Carrelli is proud of this group. Current students are constantly told stories about the talented people who preceded them.

"It gives me incentive to know that, if Mare Winningham could come out of this drama department and do well, so could I," said Jeff Koch, a senior.

Veteran agent Meyer Mishkin, whose clients have included Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and Richard Dreyfuss, signed Winningham after watching her play Maria in "The Sound of Music." A woman who had seen the performance urged Mishkin to attend.

Emmy Winner

"She seemed like a guest star working with a group of young people," said Mishkin, who represented the actress during the early stages of her career. Winningham went on to win an Emmy as best supporting actress in the television movie "Amber Waves."

Carrelli also had much to do with shaping Kramer's career. One day, he heard her singing and decided a voice that good could not be kept off the stage. Kramer, who had entered school with the intention of becoming an actress, suddenly got the chance to develop new talents.

"The first time I ever sang in public, I did Polly in 'The Boyfriend' at Chatsworth," she said. After graduation, Kramer went on to sing in clubs. She is recording an album.

Carrelli recalls that Kramer "did everything--sang, danced, acted. . . . She was stunningly beautiful."

Carrelli, who estimates that 50% of the students in his advanced classes hope to break into the entertainment industry, does all he can to help them meet their goal. This includes putting on shows in order to display special talents.

In 1983, Carrelli staged a production of the musical "Pippin" to give then-student Howard Berger a chance to shine. "There are so many opportunities in the show for unusual makeup," said Carrelli.

For one scene, Berger made a radio-controlled head. The head, which bore a striking resemblance to Carrelli, was carried on stage. The audience went crazy when the eyes started moving and a voice came out.

"If I wasn't in Bob Carrelli's class, I would not have been able to experiment with so many things," said Berger, who did much of the elaborate makeup for the recent "Creepshow 2" and is working on a film called "976-EVIL."

Last year, Carrelli chose "Elephant Man" specifically for Koch. The student won an award for a scene from the play he performed at the 44th annual Drama Festival, held at Redondo Beach High School. An agent in the audience got Koch a reading for a part in "Jaws 4."

Carrelli gets a number of calls from studios eager to fill roles with talented students. He often sends groups of students on open auditions.

Not a 'Fame West'

However, the drama coach insists that he is not in the business of running a factory for Hollywood. "I don't like to be a Fame West," he said, referring to the well-known New York performing arts high school popularized in a movie and later a television series.

Carrelli, who has spent 32 years teaching theater, loved the work long before any of his students went on to stardom.

When he was in his early 20s, Carrelli wanted to be an actor. But he quickly decided that teaching youths about the history and magic of the theater was far more interesting. The only acting Carrelli has done lately was playing the lead in an anti-litter public service commercial.

Carrelli is especially pleased when former students who have not gone on to become actors come back and tell him how much they enjoyed his classes. "I like to turn out people who are going to be confident housewives, lawyers and who appreciate live theater," he said.

Bell believes that Carrelli's ability to build a special relationship with his students is largely responsible for the high quality of Chatsworth productions. There is an affection and cheery informality evident. "We are really good friends," said Koch. "We get in fights all the time, swear in front of each other."

'Everyone Works Hard'

But Carrelli can also be demanding. Melissa Kievman, a junior, said he holds students responsible for taking care of accounting, art direction and set construction. "Everyone works hard," she said.

Carrelli likes his students to see theater in a larger context then simply high school productions. A couple of times a year, he and a number of students go downtown to attend a major show. In the past, Carrelli has taken groups to London, New York, Paris, Greece and Hong Kong. Kramer recalls a high school trip to London and Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare. "We saw play after play," she said.

It's because of experiences like these that Kramer, Winningham and others recall Carrelli as fondly as he recalls them.

"He made high school for me," said Berger.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World