School's Curtain Call for Teacher Goes On and On

Klein is a free-lance writer

Robert Gurnee spent his adult life in the Little Theater at La Puente High School, introducing a generation of teen-agers to the glow of the limelight and the glare of the footlights.

And now, after the curtain has rung down on "The Music Man," "My Fair Lady," "Oklahoma!" and dozens of other productions, La Puente High School and Gurnee's former students are giving him a standing ovation that will last forever.

On Oct. 12, the auditorium will be renamed the Robert Gurnee Theater in a ceremony honoring the man who instilled a love of musical theater in his students.

Every spring from 1955 to 1979, Gurnee and his students painted scenery, rigged curtains and lighting, sold advertising for programs, rehearsed lines, and memorized lyrics for the annual musical.

The playbills from the shows they produced read like a walk down Broadway's memory lane:

"Bells Are Ringing," "Damn Yankees," "Kiss Me, Kate," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Hello, Dolly!" "Camelot."

Colleen Keith, who played Lady Jane in Gurnee's production of "Rose Marie," has a few of those old playbills stored away, along with pictures, yearbooks and loads of memories.

"It's an experience I've never recaptured in my whole life," said Keith, now a music teacher herself. "I went on to college and appeared in plays and musicals, but nothing outshone what we did in high school."

Miles Ramsey, now a radio and television producer in Canada, played Buffalo Bill in "Annie Get Your Gun." His assessment of his old teacher echoes that of many other students.

"Bob Gurnee is one of those very special people that only comes along once in a while. He inspired students and led by example to try and make you exceed your best performance," Ramsey said.

An unusual number of former Gurnee students have gone on to careers in music.

"I would give Mr. Gurnee credit for any good things I went on to do," said Jackie Cassey, who had a 25-year career as a nightclub singer after she played Ado Annie in Gurnee's production of "Oklahoma!"

Gurnee waves off such praise with a modest chuckle.

"It wasn't me that did everything. I've always said that with kids that age all you need is luck and perseverance and you can make them do anything," the now-retired music teacher said in an interview at his West Covina home.

Perseverance is one quality Gurnee apparently never lacked.

Keith's mother, Mona Wilk, remembers that Gurnee didn't have a budget for any of the musicals. Wilk held doughnut sales to pay for costumes and other parents helped out with choreography and selling tickets.

When he decided that the theater needed an orchestra pit, Gurnee got some of the boys from his men's glee club to go to the school on a Saturday to dig one.

All the musicals were produced solely by the students, with Gurnee involving hundreds of students in each production as a way of saving money and getting them interested in the shows. Art classes designed sets and drew covers for the programs. The stage and lighting crews were made up of students. The band played the score and vocalists sang offstage during chorus numbers.

Gurnee took the productions seriously and demanded professionalism from all involved. His rules about silence during rehearsals once almost got him into trouble.

"We were rehearsing one day and a girl burst into the auditorium yelling my name. I turned around and sternly told her to be quiet until we were finished. Then, when I was through with that number, I asked what she wanted. 'Mr. Gurnee, the building is on fire!' she said."

La Puente in the mid-1950s was a rural community where few, if any, students had ever seen live theater, said Marc Allen Trujillo, who appeared in "Oklahoma!"

But that did not stop Gurnee.

"We used people that had never been on a stage before. They'd never sung a note or said a line. But they all did a good job," he said. "We had some wonderful kids in those days. They had a certain look about them. They had self-respect."

Gurnee's professional experience, which included singing with the Robert Shaw Collegiate Chorale in New York and as a featured tenor with the Roger Wagner Chorale, was a great asset.

To make up for his students' lack of sophistication, Gurnee would describe for them the stage performances he had seen in New York or while on tour.

"We were all terribly impressed with him," recalled Trujillo, now a singer and composer. "We got a great insight into the business side of entertaining. He was colorful and urbane, which was something you didn't find much in La Puente."

And his musicals were always smashing successes, packing in audiences and drawing rave reviews from parents and visitors.

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