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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.