Larry Mitchell is a true ‘Music Man’

Larry Mitchell has the opening role in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” that will be performed this week at Decker Auditorium by the Comedia Musica Players.

“Board, all aboard!” he will call out as conductor of the train entering River City Junction. A fitting line, considering that for the past 51 years in Fort Dodge, he has welcomed aboard a thousand or more to take part in musical performances that have enriched their lives and those of the theater-goers who come to view their work.

You might consider Mitchell to be Fort Dodge’s “Music Man” in the world of musical theater — just as another of the city’s beloved musical figures, Karl King, is to the world of bands and marching music. It would be hard to argue otherwise. As a producer, director and theater consultant, Mitchell directed more than 80 productions of more than 60 musicals over the years at the junior high, senior high, college and semi-professional levels in the United States and England.

Mitchell and Scott Griffith co-founded Comedia — a nonprofit volunteer organization — in 1968, so this week’s performance at Decker will be its 50th annual production of a Broadway musical — a run that would be the envy of cities much larger.

Mitchell served as the choral director at Fort Dodge Senior High for 31 years, retiring in 1997 after directing annual performances that introduced hundreds upon hundreds of young people to showcasing their musical talents for the first time. FDSH has performed musical theater continuously since 1928.

“We’re a blue-collar town,” he said. “We’re not like Ankeny or Ames. It takes people to perform. We’re all volunteers. These musical groups have flourished and continued on. By golly, it’s working. It’s been really exciting.”

“The Fantasticks” was Comedia’s first performance, staged at the Best Western Starlight Village in a dinner-theater format before moving to the Elks Club and then to its present home on the campus of Iowa Central Community College.

“It didn’t take many people to perform,” Mitchell recalled. “Starting it was one thing, but keeping it going was entirely different. Some years, we thought we might have to skip a year, not enough people, and then something happens and we go on. And the next year, we have more people than we knew what to do with.”

Some of his alumni of Comedia and FDSH went on to professional careers. Terry Goodman is one — performing in more than 200 professional plays, musicals, television shows and motion pictures. John Hagen is another — a member of the Texas Tenors, three-time Emmy Award winners who perform all over the world.

But the vast majority of performers coached by Mitchell went on to work in different professions outside the musical realm.

“You don’t gear yourself to create professionals,” he said. “What I wanted was people who would enjoy performing and they would participate when they graduated from high school and enjoy performing. Basically, what the goal is, is to find what they love doing and keep on doing it.”

Sports was a big part of Mitchell’s early years, and Fort Dodge attorney Jerry Schnurr III, who performed under Mitchell’s direction in high school and with Comedia, thinks it shows through in his approach to teaching music.

“I was an athlete in high school — in football and wrestling,” Schnurr said, “and the way Larry approached choir was how he approached basketball when he played in high school. Both call on the same principles for success — dedication, hard work, practice, rehearsal.”

There also is confidence that comes from getting up and speaking (and singing) in front of people, and the Comedia experience has aided him greatly in his courtroom work, added Schnurr, who has practiced law in Fort Dodge since 1986.

Rachel Bell was 11 years old when her father performed in the second musical Comedia did, “Paint Your Wagon.” She joined the troupe a year later with “Carousel.”

“We took the show to Leadville, Colorado, that summer and performed both ‘Paint Your Wagon’ and ‘Carousel’ in the historic Tabor Opera House,” she said. “I will always be grateful to Larry for having given me that opportunity. It is a memory that I cherish to this day.”

So, apparently, did the owners of the Tabor Opera House. Bell said she was watching “American Pickers” a couple years ago when it was taping at the opera house and the camera caught an enclosed glass case with flyers from Comedia performances of the two shows. “That would have been about 50 years old, so you might say that his impact was far spreading and lasting,” she said.

Today, she pursues her love as a choreographer with Comedia, the Fort Dodge Civic Glee Club, both of the city’s high schools and many other music organizations that has spanned several decades and more than 100 musicals.

Mitchell was born in Cherokee to Leon and Beulah Mitchell. His father farmed near Craighorn and his mother was a teacher who loved to sing and was active in her church choir. It rubbed off on Mitchell: “I’ve always enjoyed music; I took voice lessons and went to contests.”

When his family moved to Paullina, Mitchell was the 6-foot-2 center on Paullina High School’s basketball team that advanced to the Final Four of the Iowa State Basketball Tournament in 1954. They lost in the semifinals to Des Moines Roosevelt, led by point guard Randy Duncan, who starred as quarterback at the University of Iowa.

Mitchell attended Iowa State University with plans to be a veterinarian. “I loved animals,” he said, but he was exposed to music through choral director Robert McCowen and found he preferred music to science. ISU did not offer a theater major at the time, so Mitchell transferred to Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa) for his junior year and earned his degree there.

His first job was in the Orange Township School District outside of Waterloo, where he was choral director for the junior high and senior high schools. There, he started doing musicals on his own. Mitchell was hired at Fort Dodge Senior High School in 1966 by personnel director Swede Simonson, replacing Don Walker. In his early years in Fort Dodge, Mitchell directed the Fort Dodge Civic Glee Club for five years.

Scott Griffith was a senior at FDSH during Mitchell’s first year there and was attending Drake University when they combined to form Comedia. “Scolar Productions presents Comedia Musica Players” was the original name, Scolar formed by the first three letters of each’s first name.

“He provided money for technical lighting and sound and was with us for three summers,” Mitchell said. “He went out East and did some professional work and bought a dinner theater. He’s retired now and lives in Palm Springs, California. His brother Stan Griffith lives in Fort Dodge.”

“It just kind of started and grew like top-seed,” Mitchell said. “Dinner theater was a new thing back then. We went out and talked to Jim Ackerman, then the owner of Starlite, and that’s how it got started. Our stage was borrowed from the high school. We had a simple set, simple props, kind of a simple production — not as big and flamboyant as we are now.

“For the first dozen or so years, we had Richard Denny, a former Broadway singer/dancer who had a studio and choreographed for the Colorado Concert Ballet of Denver, fly into Fort Dodge for a weekend prior to our production and choreograph the entire show. We would then rehearse and adapt his choreography. He was so valuable to give us the professional touch to get us going. Richard, now deceased, became a very good and trusted lifelong friend.”

Larry Colois was in the lead role for Comedia’s first production, “The Fantasticks,” and went on to New York City where he taught at the American Academy of Performing Arts. Mitchell’s first wife, Leslie Ann Grove, was the leading lady and Mitchell played a role. Colois returned for Comedia’s 40th production, performing “Try to Remember” and “They Call the Wind Mariah” from the musical “Paint Your Wagon.”

The last Comedia performance directed by Mitchell was that 40th annual concert in 2007, when original performers from various shows of the past came from as far away as New York, Utah and Arizona to take part.

His book, “A Practical Handbook for Musical Theater,” has sold more than 1,000 copies throughout the United States.

Mitchell is grateful for the life he chose. “I wouldn’t have been very good at anything else. I would have been a very average vet. This is my true calling.”

Said Bell, “I think we would be blown away if we knew the number of people who have been affected by Larry and the opportunities he created in Fort Dodge over the years. He may no longer be directing, but his legacy is alive and kicking.”

Mitchell and his wife, Donni, who works for Kesterson Realty in Fort Dodge, have been married 21 years. Donni has taken part in the last 10 Comedia productions in a variety of duties including scenic artist, sponsorship/ticket chair and production assistant.

Mitchell said the choice of “The Music Man” for the 50th anniversary performance is perfect.

“The board decided to go with all local talent. It is very Iowa, very festive, lots of room for kids and a big cast — about 80 people. It’s very celebratory,” he said.

Once his cameo appearance is finished, Mitchell said, “Then I am done. That’s it. Then I come out for the curtain call at the end. So, I am going to sit unobtrusively in the audience until then.”