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.
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Art on Broadway — Tours of 5 downtown venues featuring art from Alexandra Hall, Julie Wall, Peter Lupkin, Daniel Dienelt, Knotodday, Kay Gregg, Terry Ratliff and St. Monci, 5 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Broadway Street, Fort Wayne, free, 417-5925
Beer, Bourbon, Bacon Festival — Unlimited beer sampling from national and regional craft breweries, fine bourbon sampling and bacon inspired treats, 6-9 p.m. Saturday, March 25 (5-9 p.m. VIP), Marquis and Three Rivers Ballrooms, Hotel Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, $35-$75, 484-0411
An Evening with Author Tom Frank — Author of What’s the Matter with Kansas talks about his new book; hors d’oeuvres, lecture and book signing included in admission, 6 p.m. Saturday, March 25, CS3 Hideaway, Fort Wayne, $15 plus donation, 602-1008
Puttin’ on the Ritz —Active 20-30 club fundraiser with live music from Chris Worth and Company, gourmet edibles, wine and beer, live and silent auctions; black tie optional, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, $50-$90, 450-2844
Shipshewana on the Road — Food, craft and primitives show and sale, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, March 25 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $4, 483-1111
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Big Dick and the Penetrators — Classic rock at Navy Club, Ship 245, New Haven, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 493-4044
Brat Pack — Rat Pack/variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at Vinnie's Bar, Decatur, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 729-2225
Ellsworth Sharp — Neofolk at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 745-3369
FBC Band w/Sheba — Variety/Music and Memories benefit at C2G Music Hall, Fort Wayne , 8 p.m., $7-$15, 426-6434
Fireball Matinee — Rock at Hideaway Lounge, Bluffton, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 824-0455
Fleshwounds — Rock at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 488-3344
Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra — Funk at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., cover, 483-1311
Fu5ion — Variety at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $3, (260) 387-5063
The Illegals — Rock at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 422-5896
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 Alley Sports Bar, Pro Bowl West, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-4421
Johnny Freakin' Xcitor — Country rock at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
The Orange Opera w/Mickyle James — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., $5, 267-5303
Prime Suspects — Variety at American Legion Post 499, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 483-1368
Quincy and the Q-Tet feat. Phil Potts — Rock/variety at Downtown Eatery & Spirits, Warsaw, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, (574) 267-6000
Second Nature — Pop at Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Shannon Persinger Quartet — Jazz/variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at American Legion Post 148, Fort Wayne, 7 p.m., no cover, 423-4751
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Ambitious Blondes Karaoke — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Beat Karaoke & DJ — Variety at American Legion Post 296, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m. , no cover, 456-2988
Bucca Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Corner Pocket Tavern, Fremont, 10 p.m., no cover, 495-9255
Classic City Karaoke w/Tobin — Karaoke at Toad's Tavern, Monroeville, 10 p.m., no cover, 623-6226
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Karaoke at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., , 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 557-1563
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-4748
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 — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Live DJ — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Pike's Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-6200
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at Kville Pub, Kendallville, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 348-1677
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The Children’s Hour — Lillian Hellman’s seminal drama about bigotry perpetuated against the LGBT community and how easily a lie can spread, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
Getting Sara Married — Comedy about an unmarried lawyer in need of a husband (according to her aunt), 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Saturday, March 25, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
One Foot in the Gravy — Howard Kingkade’s comedy and winner of Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 422-4226
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22nd Annual Valentine’s Invitational — Works from local and national artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru March 31, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568
2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards — Award-winning works from northern Indiana and northwest Ohio middle and high school students, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Afros: A Celebration of African Hair by Michael July — Contemporary photography exhibit by Brooklyn author/photographer, daily thru April 14, D’Agostino Art Gallery, Indiana Tech, Fort Wayne, 399-8626
An Artful Spring — Works by Gwen Gutwein, Patricia Weiss, Austin Cartwright and more, Tuesday-Saturday thru March 31, Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Decatur Sculpture Tour — 31 original sculptures and 15 permanent exhibits on display, walking tour maps available, thru April 1, Decatur, free, 724-2605
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Entropy — Daniel Swartz solo exhibition explores relationship between death and mourning through combinations of mythology, mathematics, multi-dimensional physics and pop culture, Monday-Saturday thru April 1, Jennifer Ford Art, Fort Wayne, 740-1309
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
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, $5-$7 (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
Garden Party — Garden-themed works in a variety of mediums from over 30 local artists, Monday-Saturday thru March 31, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Generations: A View of Who Was Who — Works by Romare Bearden, Kara Walker, Alma Thomas, Jacob Lawrence and other African-American artists, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
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
A Mary Poppins Garden Party — Child-oriented garden exhibit, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 1, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Moments in Time: Reflecting on the Human Spirit — Elizabeth Opalenik photographs from her recent Amish series A Journey Home and her Reflecting on the Edge exhibition, daily thru March 26, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
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
RAW. Untamed. Unashamed. Visions of Freedom. — Abstract romanticist works in acrylics and epoxy from Kristy Jahn, Fridays and Saturday-Thursday by appointment thru March 25, The Gallery at Pranayoga, Fort Wayne, 423-9642
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, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Wabash County Schools Exhibition — Works by high school art students, daily thru April 16, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102