Whenever I’m in a retrospective frame of mind, considering questions like “What one person had the greatest influence on your life?” or “Who’s the most remarkable individual you ever got to know?” I immediately think of Mr. Ingle.
I’m older now than he was the years I knew him and yet I can’t bring myself to call him anything other than Mr. Ingle. It’s a little like calling Queen Elizabeth Lizzie. The respect Mr. Ingle garnered, as a high school drama teacher – you don’t mess with that. And the man was legendary. Audiences would regularly travel miles to see the shows he directed, not knowing a single kid in the cast. Mr. Ingle was the attraction, and they were always fairly fantastic.
Or, it’s possible those strangers-to-all-the-students were coming in the hopes of saying “I saw a star before he became famous.” In three decades of teaching high school, nobody taught a higher quantity of future stars. Yvette Mimieux, Stefanie Powers, Barbara Hershey, Julie Kavner, Swoosie Kurtz, Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks, Richard Dreyfuss, Joanna Gleason, Laraine Newman, David Schwimmer and Nicolas Cage, to name just a few. I can vividly recall, while I was feasting on his classes, some newspaper referring to “John Ingle’s talent factory.” You burst with pride to be a part of such a thing.
It’s often said that great directors set up a fertile environment in which artists create. The shear quantity of us drama kids, the moths to Mr. Ingle’s flame, is astounding. The spring musical would have more people working on it – mostly behind the scenes – than all our school’s sports programs combined. The sets the kids constructed were so fabulous and of such high quantity, they were rented by other schools for their productions years and years afterwards. The auditorium – enormous in my memory – regularly sold out.
Our silver-haired Pied Piper often waxed enthusiastic about the power of theatre, the brilliance of various plays and musicals, and, most emotionally, the talents we possessed. “They’ll be throwing babies from the balconies,” he’d say, despite the fact there was only one balcony and the audience was discouraged from bringing infants. But this was his loving way of predicting we’d be wonderful – a self-fulfilling prophesy – and, above all, we felt loved. Maybe what I’m about to describe is a common cliché, but, at our school, an amazingly high percentage of kids had divorced parents. Year after year, the strong, benevolent father figure we saw, and looked forward to seeing, was Mr. Ingle. Were we drawn to him out of some basic child’s psychological need?
It’s more likely, I think, that quality was the draw: we saw the shows and instantly wanted to be a part of his team. And we’d work our asses off in his classes and rehearsals. I think back on the other classes I took, mostly honors courses, and the other fine teachers I had: Did I work nearly as hard in any other subject? Not close.
As you know if you’ve read me before, I’m all about the writing of musicals. In Mr. Ingle’s musical theatre workshop, in studying what it takes to perform in musicals, I learned more about what it takes to write musicals than from any other single source. It was knowledge I couldn’t wait to apply. So, while in high school, I wrote three musicals, and pitched two of them to Mr. Ingle for possible production there. In Room 181, where we’d all hang out, right outside of his office, I played the entire score to The Great White Way and Through the Wardrobe for an audience of one: Mr. Ingle. He took me seriously. He asked the sorts of questions any producer might ask if they were giving a property serious consideration. In a story I’ll tell some other day, most of the script to Through the Wardrobe had been written in Room 181, on a non-electric typewriter. My collaborator and I sat there holding hands as Mr. Ingle announced the summer shows. He’d opted for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown instead. I thought “Well, that’s a good one, too.” That we were even in the running, in his eyes, was affirmation enough for me to continue writing these things. And the next thing I knew, my collaborator got Through the Wardrobe produced in England.
But enough about me. Here’s something that’s often wondered about great teachers: Would they have preferred it if they had done the thing they ended up teaching? Usually, this is a matter of mere speculation. Nobody can doubt that Mr. Ingle loved shaping young minds. That was his life’s work, and the source of considerable fame and accolades. And yet…
A couple of years after my sister excelled her way through the Ingle Performing Arts Department, the numbskulls on the School Board decided it was time to put the fifty-something stud horse out to pasture. (They could pay a younger teacher less.) So, with time on his hands, Mr. Ingle started going to auditions. Soon, he was getting tiny roles in films and TV. The roles got bigger, bit by bit, until he was cast as Edward Quartermaine on the popular soap opera, General Hospital. Suddenly, he was extremely famous for his thespian abilities.
I can see how that’s a very satisfying second act to his life, which ended on September 16 (he was 84), but something irrationally emotional in me has always been bothered by his fame. You see, lots of people can act. Becoming beloved on a soap opera – well, yes, a handful of people can do that. But to inspire, to instill a love for theatre, to get teens to voluntarily discipline themselves, all for art; and to do this at the highest possible level: Only Mr. Ingle could do that. Viewers of daytime television – God bless them – are feeling some sort of sadness over his death. But I had the incalculable honor of being directed by him several times (You should have seen my Bottom!) and spending a four-year moment basking in his glow. And as he said,
“This moment has never happened before, and will never happen again; therefore it must be perfect!”
And it was.