Spotlight on Bob Sagan, Act II

  • For many years, Bob Sagan was the heart and soul of the theater program at the high school. After joining Rush-Henrietta as an English teacher in 1972, he dedicated the next 26 years to working with students and growing the Sperry Little Theater, which later became the Spotlight Theatre, into a showcase of true talent.

    For the students, the experience was significant, sometimes life-changing. Many have continued to be involved in the arts in their adult lives, either as a hobby or a career. That is true for the students who came before and after Bob’s time leading the program, but for those who were here with him, the impact is remarkable. The respect and love for their former teacher remains strong today. We spoke with a few of those alumni about what the experience meant - and still means - to them. Here are their reflections.

    Emily Palumbos – I was actually scared of Bob (“Mr. Sagan”) as a freshman – he could make or break you! That is why I was so glad to be cast in a play as a freshman. It was an impactful experience to be involved with theater throughout my time in R-H. I was thrilled and honored to get the lead of Polly in “Crazy for You” during my senior year - 1998. That is just an incredible show with 29 songs and dance numbers. When Bob had the horrible car accident, the cast had to decide what to do. We could come together and keep it going or give up. We decided we owed it to him to not give up. I didn’t realize it then, but my experiences in the theater program, particularly taking on additional roles during Bob’s recuperation, really helped me to grow and gain confidence. It provided a foundation that now, as an adult, allows me to be comfortable speaking in front of others, to crowds, and on camera. Bob believed in me more than I believed in myself. I hope every student has a teacher like Bob and the opportunity to engage, lead, and find themselves like I was able to do through performing, that they can reflect on throughout their lives.

    Jeanne (Brooks) Schwasman – I was involved in the 1980s. I had so many amazing experiences being part of the cast in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Bells are Ringing,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “Pippin,” and others. My children have been involved in performances while they were in high school as well. In fact, my daughter was also in “Pippin” at Rush-Henrietta! I was so excited when my youngest was able to work with Bob through the Rochester Broadway Theatre League! Bob truly set the stage for a great program, and it has continued to thrive since then. In fact, in 2006, we were the first high school in the country to perform “Cats” and it was covered on Nightline! 

    Brian Levy – I was part of the Class of 1979. My mother, Phyllis Levy, worked in the school main office for 42 years and was always active with supporting the theater group. I remember going to see “Hello Dolly” as a kid, and I was just blown away. Every show Bob directed after that became a family event. I was in Bob’s English class in my freshman year, and he suggested I audition. I was honored to be selected as one of five freshmen cast in “Mame.” It was a great experience and the start of so many great things to follow - I even joined chorus as a result. I was also in “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Anything Goes,” “Guys and Dolls,” and several straight (non-musical) shows. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

    Karen (Levy) McArthur – I started at the high school in 1974. I was a singer and cheerleader, but had not been in theater. During my sophomore year, I was in a car accident and could no longer cheer. Bob invited me to audition for “Bye Bye Birdie,” and I was honored to get the part of Rosie. One of my costumes was this amazing fringed outfit and Chita Rivera pants - I felt like the biggest star on earth! Being in theater was an integral part of my life. Everything we did and every person involved in the theater became family to me, and many have remained so after graduating. There is just something very special about it all. Bob’s support and encouragement helped me gain confidence. I feel truly blessed for the experience and that Bob has remained part of our lives. 

    Howard Ressel – I was a shy kid, not involved in much. But in eighth grade, the musical director at the middle school asked me to be in the play. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. When I went to the high school, I wanted to stay involved in theater. I was in the fall play and the spring musical. It was “Bye Bye Birdie,” and it needed a lot of young kids. I was in the chorus - I enjoyed it, but I began to gravitate to the backstage. That felt like home. I learned how to build sets and run other technical aspects of the productions. That experience is really what brought me out of my shell. I was trusted to be the stage manager of “Guys and Dolls” during my junior year, and “Annie Get Your Gun” during my senior year. The stage crew leadership became an unofficial club called The Management - we had bylaws and everything! I just fell in love with technical theater. The leadership and people skills I gained have served me well during my career and my volunteer activities. I am now an engineer and I still work with the Center Stage theater at the JCC. These programs make a difference in people’s lives - helping them grow in confidence and leadership abilities. They are just as impactful as academics and sports.  

    Jamie Kazacos – I was a 1988 grad. That was the first year Roth and Sperry combined. But the two theater programs started to combine the year before. I was part of the Roth Royal Players during my freshman and sophomore years at Roth. It was intimidating going to Sperry that first year. We were all concerned with how we would fit in. But Bob welcomed us with open arms - we immediately felt like one family. The first musical was “Kiss Me Kate.” My brother was in it, too. It was a great experience. I am still friends with several of the people I met through theater. My daughter is now involved in theater. I forgot how much time we put into it! The late rehearsals, the time and dedication – it didn’t hit me at the time. But Bob was there for all of it. It takes a special person to do that year after year. He has a gift for it. I am a music teacher at Roth and I hope to bring some of that same passion to my work with students. 

    The important role the theater has played in the lives of the students is evident on the walls backstage. In the mid-1970s, a student wrote his name on the wall. “He was afraid he was going to get in trouble,” Bob recalls. “Instead, we embraced it. Since then, everyone has signed these walls. The soul of the theater is sitting on these walls.”  

    Bob is pleased the program has continued to flourish at Rush-Henrietta. “There have been some wonderful directors. I remember when they did ‘Evita’ - that was amazing to do on a high school level.”

    Five years ago, many former R-H students held a reunion celebrating Bob’s years in the theater. From that evening came the idea for an Educators Grove to honor teachers and school district employees who made a difference in their students’ lives. Headed by Howard Ressel, a group is working with the town of Henrietta to make this grove a reality. They hope to have details to share with the community in 2023. The first tree planted will be in honor of Bob. 

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