The Still-Productive Yearsby Pat Launer August 31, 2010
It’s the Great Aging Dilemma: What on earth will I do with myself after I retire?
Meet Deborah and Beeb Salzer, role models for anyone facing down The Big R.
The Working Years
The Salzers have spent their lives devoted to young people and the arts.
Beeb (he was born Clarence, but his older brother referred to him as ‘The Beeb,’ as in, ‘the babe’ — and it stuck) came from German-Jewish stock. He grew up in Cincinnati, a seventh-generation Ohioan.
His great-great-grandmother cheered Lincoln on his way to Washington to become president. At the turn of the last century, his grandmother’s cousin became Utah’s only non-Mormon governor. On his father’s side, his relatives founded the Mosler Safe Co. (1867-2001).
His artistic ability came from his father’s uncle, the famous painter Henry Mosler, the first American artist whose work was purchased by the Louvre (1879).
Beeb majored in art at Yale, and after a two-year stint in the Army as an illustrator (of rockets), he returned to the Yale Drama School for a master’s degree in theater design. Then it was on to New York, where he had several painting exhibitions, one of which toured South Africa under U.S. State Department sponsorship. He created scenic designs for Broadway, opera and feature films (“Up the Down Staircase,” “No Way to Treat a Lady”).
In 1962, when he was designing sets for the Barnard/Columbia Summer Playhouse, he met Deborah, who was an apprentice actor/dancer/singer/set seamstress. They married in 1963. Two years later, their daughter Miriam (now a software engineer in the Bay Area) was born, and two years after that came Rebecca (a dancer/choreographer who’s in the first class of the new Dance Theatre MFA program at The University of California, San Diego).
Beeb began teaching college so he could support his family. He also started putting his thoughts on paper, contributing articles to The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and professional journals. He became contributing editor for Lighting Dimensions magazine and Theatre Design and Technology, for which he’s won five awards for best article of the year. He collected his many columns in a book called “The Skeptical Scenographer: Essays on Theatrical Design and Human Nature.”
Meanwhile, Deborah graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio with her bachelor’s degree in English, and then went for a master’s degree from the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.
Her family hailed from Eastern Europe. Her maternal grandfather, Solon Bernard Komaiko, “wanted to be another Sholem Aleichem.” His stories, published in 1949, were called “Here to Stay.” His wife’s grandfather was the first Jewish physician in Chicago, who started a cheder (Hebrew school) for girls. Deborah’s father, a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge University, did petroleum research that took him to Chicago, where he met his wife. They ultimately settled in Westchester, NY, where, with several friends, they founded the Larchmont Temple. “The first services were held in our backyard,” Deborah recalls.
She studied theater, ballet and modern dance, and worked as an actor for a while but, she admits, she had “the wrong temperament.” She realized she was perfect for education. During her summers as a counselor at the Herald Tribune’s Fresh Air Fund camp for disabled and able-bodied children, she was told she “had a gift.” This from the camp director, who was the dean of education at Harvard. Teaching at the progressive Bank Street School for Children “pulled together everything I knew and loved,” she says. By age 24, she was the school’s head teacher.
After Miriam was born, Deborah began teaching at nearby Manhattanville College, where she team-taught a class called Dance for Classroom Teachers, focusing on “encouraging children to use their natural love of movement in positive ways.” She also ran a federally funded theater program for elementary schoolchildren in Harlem.
Finding out about the Young Playwrights Project, which was composer Stephen Sondheim created, proved a life-changing inspiration.
In 1982, Beeb accepted a position as full professor of design at San Diego State University. By 1985, Deborah had founded the Playwrights Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting literacy, creativity and communication skills through drama-based activities. As the executive/artistic director, she developed and taught curriculum for grades 4-12; trained theater artists and classroom teachers; implemented a statewide playwriting contest for teens; produced premieres of 100 plays; mentored scores of young playwrights; and created an intergenerational theater program for youth and senior citizens.
Along the way, she helped launch the careers of dramatists such as Josefina Lopez (“Real Women Have Curves”) and Annie Weisman (“Be Aggressive” and “Surf Report,” both of which were produced at the La Jolla Playhouse). She also wrote a playwriting curriculum, “Stage Write.”
Early on, on a whim, she wrote a letter to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee. Surprisingly, he responded and became a long-term friend and consultant to both Deborah’s and Beeb’s work.
“I was so nervous with him that first time,” she recalls with a chuckle, “that I got lost taking him to a school program. And I took him to Subway for lunch! I wasn’t a slick administrator, and I never became one. I think he found that relaxing.”
Albee was an active participant in the Design Performance Jury that Beeb created at SDSU, a unique program of student theater presentations before a panel of high-profile experts. In the 25 years of the project, Albee served on the jury 15 times.
Over the years, Deborah won an Emmy, a special Media Award from the National Council of Christians and Jews, and the Gold Award in Children’s Programming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the 1990 TV program, “Young Playwrights,” which she co-produced. In 2004, the Salzers jointly received a Shiley Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Patté Awards for Theater Excellence.
And that brings us up to the present.
Retirement — and Beyond
Both Beeb and Deborah retired in 2008. As fate would have it, that was the same time their daughter Rebecca announced she was moving back to San Diego for graduate school.
“It was the perfect bridge,” Deborah says. “The Playwrights Project was my baby; but this was my real baby, with a real need: babysitting services for a 3- and 4-year-old.” That was an impetus for new and surprising creative endeavors.
At her grandson Ronan’s school, Doyle Elementary, Deborah met a special education teacher who invited her to work with her students. She began volunteering as a teacher of movement and drama to small groups of kids in grades 1-5.
“It’s been so much fun,” Deborah crows, “working with such young children, seeing what joy they get from using their bodies.”
Now she’s thinking about writing an article on the virtues of collaboration and the power of the arts with challenged students. And next summer, she’ll be involved in a program called Play2Create, a series of creativity workshops conducted in a 13th century monastery in Tuscany. Deborah will be facilitating Autobiographical Playwriting.
“That whole program,” says Deborah, now 69, “will be an exploration of what comes next for me.”
In the meantime, she’s still a consultant to the Playwrights Project: teaching playwriting workshops for schoolchildren, selecting winning scripts for the statewide Plays by Young Writers competition and providing guidance on new programs, such as “Recollections and Reflections” for seniors.
In preparation for the organization’s upcoming 25th anniversary celebration, she’s working with six former Young Playwright winners. She’s asked each to write a 10-minute play, making reference to the number 25.
While she’s busy, Beeb, now 77, picks up 5-year-old Micah at preschool. Every day, he makes a sandwich, and each day he creates an imaginative housing for the lunch pieces: a bug, an airplane, a crocodile, a cat, a floating boat — each a gaily painted paper construction. One time, there was an “Afikomen” lunch.
“There was no sandwich waiting for Micah,” Beeb says with a twinkle in his eye. “He had to find it. After searching out the pieces, he was more interested in having me ‘do it again’ than in eating the sandwich!”
Micah was also the inspiration for a children’s book Beeb has written and illustrated, with several spinoffs in the works. The first installment is “Grandpa was a Pirate.” He keeps writing articles — so many that “it’s time for another book.” He still paints in the poolside studio of their lovely Pacific Beach view-home. Last year, they adopted a dog, who Beeb walks for two miles every morning on Fiesta Island.
Separately and together, they’re definitely keeping active, not idle or bored in the slightest. Their only regret is that their other two grandchildren — Reuben, age 13, and Eliana, age 11 — aren’t closer.
The Salzers also turn their generosity outward from the family. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they hosted a family of five in their home for three weeks. During the San Diego fires a few years ago, two families (including three toddlers) stayed with them for several days.
Their lives are full. Deborah says it best for both of them:
“We’re grateful to have made a place for ourselves in the arts — using our talents and helping people. That should be a goal for everyone. And we’re revisiting it again in retirement.”
The 25th anniversary celebration of the Playwrights Project will be held Nov. 6 at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park. Tickets and information are available by calling (619) 239-8222 or visiting www.playwrightsproject.org. For information on the Play2Create program in Tuscany, go to www.play2create.com.