When it comes to musical theater families, Jillian Cook Bixler’s definitely qualifies. She has been performing since childhood, she married a fellow performer and now their children are well on their way to careers in performing as well.
Raised in Grove City, Pennsylvania, Bixler grew up happily in a home filled with music.
“My mother was very musical,” she says. “She played a little piano and violin and was in high school orchestra with her twin sister Lois. Her younger brother John played a mean piano. Mom used to play records of Broadway musicals while she was ironing, and we would sing along.”
The music never left her head and even followed her to school.
“My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Phillips, had to remind me several times not to tap dance or sing in class,” she says. “I don’t know that I was a born performer, but I know there was always music around and in me.”
When she was in third grade, her parents brought home an upright piano and she began taking lessons.
“One of the local piano teachers had a music club and we would do recitals and perform for civic meetings in town,” she says. “My friend Julie Hodge and I sang ‘Edelweiss’ from The Sound of Music. We thought we were the biggest thing ever.”
She attended Grove City High School and was active in theater there.
“One of my first auditions was for The Velveteen Rabbit in high school. I was scared out of my mind.”
She credits her two theater teachers, Tony Naples and Kaye Pollock, as helping her feel comfortable onstage. Their encouragement worked, and she was cast in the lead role.
Her small town high school allowed her to participate in many activities. In addition to being a theater performer, she was a majorette and sang with and played piano accompaniment for the school choir.
After graduating in 1977, she attended Ohio University in Athens, where she was a vocal performance major. After a year and a half, she switched her major to theater.
“At the time, schools didn’t have musical theater degrees. You were either a music major or a theater major.”
Before she had taken all of her general courses required to graduate, she moved to Orlando, Florida, to live with her Aunt Lois for a summer. There she performed in Damn Yankees for a summer theater program at Rollins College and playing Catherine in Pippin at the University of Central Florida.
While there, a friend told her about the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre Apprentice Program in Jupiter, Florida. One of the requirements was an associate’s degree at a Florida institution. She finished her associate’s degree by taking her general courses at Valencia Community College in between performing. She auditioned for the apprentice program and was one of a dozen or so accepted. She was placed into not one, but two apprentice groups from 1981 to 1982, and at the end of the program she and the other apprentices received their Actor’s Equity union cards after earning Equity points while performing in shows at the dinner theater.
“I realize now how lucky I was to have this experience,” she says. “I got to work with many prominent actors and see how they developed their craft from the rehearsal process to the stage.”
One of the most prominent actors, she says, was her teacher, Mr. Charles Nelson Reilly.
“That is how he always introduced himself – Mister Charles Nelson Reilly,” she says. “He always referred to his friends by their proper names, as well. Mr. Reynolds, Miss [Julie] Harris, Mr. [Vincent] Gardenia. It was very important to him to show respect to those he loved.”
Reilly, who died in 2007, was a prolific TV, film, and stage actor in the 1960s and 1970s, although he was perhaps best known for TV game shows, Match Game and Hollywood Squares.
“Above all, his favorite thing to do was teach,” Bixler says. “He loved us completely.”
His humor made him a favorite among the apprentices.
“He asked me to perform the song ‘Is it Really Me?’ from The Rainmaker for one of our apprentice shows,” she recalls. “One rehearsal he came over to me and said, ‘Just sing the [expletive] out of it!’”
During the program, she understudied the role of Chava in Fiddler on the Roof for the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and performed in three mainstage shows, including The Music Man.
Reynolds himself also taught, including a very popular late-night class, which met from midnight until 4 a.m.
“We didn’t care,” Bixler says. “It was exhilarating.”
One particularly fond memory she has involves the graduation of the first group of apprentices. Bixler was set to participate in the second group, so she just sat on the far end of the first group’s graduating class.
“When Mr. Reynolds came out, he introduced all the graduates,” she says. “When he got to me, he didn’t say anything. He just reached down, took off my shoe, and tossed it off stage to the stage manager.”
She sat through the entire graduation ceremony wearing only one shoe. At the end, Reynolds asked the stage manager to bring out the shoe, which he did, carried on a pillow.
“Mr. Reynolds took the shoe, kneeled down, and told everyone if the shoe fits I would get to stay,” she says. “It was really sweet. My father was in the audience and I know he told that story many times.”
She went to work on a cruise ship after the program ended, spending the next three years on three different ships, both as a performer and as an assistant cruise director.
“It was a great thing to do when you are young and have no other commitments,” she says. “It was fun, but three years was definitely enough.”
A fellow performer on the ship was Kent Bixler, whom she had met through mutual friends. In 1989, Kent and Jill left life on the open sea to return to college. Kent received a second bachelor’s degree in communication, and Jill finished her degree in elementary education. They married in 1992 between semesters and had two daughters, Darby and Dana.
Their daughters are also actor/singers, and the family has performed together onstage in different combinations through the years. Kent was in Les Misérables at Civic and Violet at Arena with both girls, and Jill was in White Christmas at the Civic with Darby.
“The girls came with us to church choir and performed in church productions,” Bixler says, “so they’ve always been involved with music and theater. Both girls performed for the Fort Wayne Youtheatre. Harvey Cocks has been instrumental in encouraging the girls to continue to grow as performers.”
Darby recently graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and will work with the Missoula Children’s Theatre in June, Bixler relates proudly, and Dana will be a sophomore at Wright State University studying music theater.
After a long break from the stage, she spoke with director Suzan Moriarty, who talked her into auditioning for her current project, the Arena Dinner Theatre comedy Always a Bridesmaid. The biggest challenge Bixler has found has been learning all the lines.
“I just figure it’s age and menopause,” she jokes, “but my director and cast mates have been so supportive and helpful.”
She says it’s been fun to take ownership of the material after a long rehearsal process, now that the show has opened, and she finds the experience of working in an all-female cast “empowering.”
“Women relate to each other differently,” she says. “Suzan is very creative, and she encourages us to go to the next level.”
By day, Bixler works for Southwest Allen County Schools as an assistant teacher for the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. She also has 20 private piano and voice students and works a few hours a week for Dave’s Music Den at Sweetwater.
Now that she has gotten her feet wet in theater once again, she is looking forward to what comes next. One of her plans is to get new headshots and to do some commercial auditions.
In the meantime, she is enjoying the freedom of being an empty nester back on the Fort Wayne audition circuit.
“We’re so lucky to have so many wonderful organizations to be a part of,” she says.
Friday, April 28
Click on the headings below for full calendars
Click header for complete Things To Do calendar
Concordia Comedy Festival — Concordia Lutheran High School presents a showing of comedy films from middle and high school students, 7 p.m. Friday, April 28, Room 101, Neff Hall, IPFW, Fort Wayne, free, 483-1102
Tapestry: A Day for You — Day of inspiration, renewal and education for women in all stages of life with keynote speaker Ann Curry, 7:30 a.m. Friday, April 28, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $75, 483-1111
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Click header for complete Music & Comedy calendar
Blooze Faktor — Blues at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., cover, 483-1311
Chris Worth & Company — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 557-1563
Classic Voice — Variety at The Venice Restaurant, Fort Wayne, 7-10 p.m., no cover, (260) 482-1618
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at The Venue, Angola, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 665-3922
Expanding Man — Variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
G-Money Band — Blues at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Hubie Ashcraft & Travis Gow — Country at Billy's Downtown Zulu, Monroeville, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 623-3583
The Illegals — Rock at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., no cover, 483-5526
IPFW Bands & Choirs w/Fort Wayne Children's Choir — Classical at Auer Performance Hall, Rhinehart Music Center, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., $4-$7, 481-6555
Joe Stabelli — Jazz at Don Hall's Gas House, Fort Wayne, 5:45-9 p.m., no cover, 426-3411
John Curran & Renegade — Country at American Legion Post 241, Waynedale, 8:30-11:30 p.m., no cover, 747-7851
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
Rebecca Rego — Americana/country at Two-EE's Winery, Huntington, 7:30-9:30 p.m., no cover, 672-2000
Secret Mezzanine — Variety at Deer Park Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 432-8966
String Theory — Acoustic variety at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 260-745-3369
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 422-5896
Trichotomous Hippopotamus w/Trackless, John Fishell — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., cover, 267-5303
The Why Store — Rock at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, (260) 387-5063
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Big Dawg Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Bucca Karaoke w/Ashley — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Pine Valley Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 490-9464
Dance Party w/DJ Rich — Variety at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., cover, 422-5055
DJ dance party — at Rum Runners, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., ,
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Variety at Tap Haus, New Haven, 9 p.m., no cover, 493-6622
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Jay — Variety at Coconutz @ Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Scott — Variety at JR's Pub, Leo, 9 p.m., no cover, 627-2500
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., ,
House DJ — Variety at Early Bird's Ultra Lounge, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 483-1979
House DJ — Variety at Flashback on the Landing, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 422-5292
Karaoke w/DJ Chuck — Variety at DW Bar & Grill, Churubusco, 10 p.m., no cover, 693-8172
Karaoke with Rooster — Variety at Portside Pizza, Columbia City, 9 p.m., no cover, 691-3333
Karaoke — Variety at Coconutz @ Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 9-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Karaoke — Variety at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m., no cover, 488-3344
Karaoke — Variety at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Karaoke — Karaoke at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Karaoke — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Rockstar Karaoke & DJ w/Scotty — Karaoke at Backway Lounge, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 665-5081
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at 4 Crowns, Auburn, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., no cover, 925-9805
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ w/Kevin — Variety at Danny's Italian Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 484-4444
SureShot Karaoke w/David — Variety at The Green Frog Inn, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 426-1088
Three Rivers Karaoke — at Bottle and Bottega, Fort Wayne, 8:30-10:30 p.m., no cover, 494-1020
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Funny Little Thing Called Love — Romantic comedy by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Home and Jamie Wooten, 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Friday-Saturday, April 28-29 and May 5-6 and May 12-13, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
The Little Mermaid — Fort Wayne Civic Theatre musical based on the Disney movie, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 8 p.m. Friday, May 5; 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, May 6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $17-$29, 424-5220
Little Shop of Horrors — IPFW Department of Theatre performance of Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical comedy, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29, Williams Theatre, IPFW, Fort Wayne, $5-$18, 481-6555
Next to Normal — Tony Award- and Pulitzer-winning musical about coping with mental illness, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 4-6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Three Rivers Music Theatre, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 498-2270
The Taming of the Shrew — William Shakespeare’s now somewhat controversial comedy about the battle between the sexes, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29 and Friday-Saturday, May 5-6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 12-13, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
A Wrinkle in Time — all for One productions’ adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s young adult science fiction novel, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 5-6; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 7, PPG ArtsLab, Auer Center for Arts & Culture, Fort Wayne, $11-20, 422-4226
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37th National Print Exhibition — Juried exhibition featuring contemporary printmakers from around the nation, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
41st SOCA Student Exhibition — Works from students currently enrolled at USF’s School of Creative Arts, daily thru April 30, Weatherhead Gallery, USF Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
Jan Krist-Finkbeiner — Exhibition of ceramic reliefs, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
Juxtapoz Magazine: 25 Years Under the Influence — A chronicle of the iconic magazine’s evolution into one of the most influential magazines of art of the counterculture, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Kathy Funderburg & Diane Schafer-King — Acrylic paintings (Funderburg) and works in marbled paper and fabric (Schaefer-King), Monday-Saturday thru April 29, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Norman Bradley and Friends — Exhibition of works by friends and colleagues of the late Fort Wayne artist, Tuesday-Saturday thru May 20 , Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Perspectives Live Butterfly Display — Up close and personal perspectives of the Conservatory’s newest collection of live butterflies, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 25, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Rhoda Gerig: The Hope of Eagles — Photographic images of eagles, daily thru June 4, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102
Robert Williams: SLANG Aesthetics! — An exhibition of new work by the artist considered the godfather of the lowbrow, pop surrealist and colloquial realism art movements, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 23, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
SOCA Graduate Program: Student Highlights — Juried exhibition of works by students enrolled in USF’s School of Creative Arts graduate program, Monday-Friday thru April 30, Lupke Gallery, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Exhibition of works by IPFW graduation seniors, daily thru May 3, Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery, Main Library, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Senior thesis projects from Bachelor of Fine Arts candidates Brenda Drayer (sculpture), Derek Hibbs (printmaking), Ellen Mensch (painting), Nathaniel Morris (sculpture) and Kyle Snodgrass (sculpture), daily thru May 7, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring Palette — New original works by more than 50 nationally recognized artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru May 20 (Cinco de Mayo Fiesta featuring mariachi music by Mark Meussling 6-10 p.m. Friday, May 5), Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568