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Theater flows through his blood

WHEATFIELD -- In the decades since he's been trying a university professor's suggestion that he create his own opportunities, Don Swartz has been startled by his success from royalty checks from productions of his 25 plays all over the country to local demand for more of his comedies about two old Polish ladies.

"I remember the day he said it. It really struck a chord, and I thought, 'That's it. That's what you got to do. The worst you can do is fail,' " said Swartz, 51, of Saul Elkin, former chairman of the University at Buffalo theater department. "People said, 'You'll never make a career in theater, especially not in North Tonawanda And, I thought, 'Let's try.' "

Swartz, who earned master's and bachelor's degrees in theater and education, developed a summer theater program for kids into the year-round Starry Night production company, now in a converted North Tonawanda church on Schenck Street called the Ghostlight Theatre.

"I'm the company manager, the artistic director, the janitor. It's a small company and there's one office in it. You do everything, but I love it," said the North Tonawanda native.

Plays at the Ghostlight follow an old Roman formula: a drama for fall, a classic in winter, comedy in spring and romance for summer.

This 40th season, which includes an August musical, "Fiddler on the Roof," opens next month. "Halloween Dreams," a 20-year-old murder mystery by Swartz, opens Oct. 6. In December, it will be a theatrical version of the film "It's a Wonderful Life." On stage in February will be "Frankenstein, Swartz's adaptation of the 200-year old novel and horror story.

In May, "Regrets Only" premieres, the fifth play-episode featuring his wife, Debby, as Lottie and Joann Mis as Bernice.

The pair Swartz created 10 years ago have developed a local following eager for new plays. "It's very Buffalo. It's two grumpy old Polish ladies and the audience is just nuts for them," he said.

>Why are they so popular? And surprising to you? Some in the audience have dressed up as them?

The last show -- it was called "Get Off My Cabbage" -- they came dressed as the Lottie and Bernice characters. Old-world Polish attire. The past 10 years, they never change their dresses. They have house dresses from the '50s. Horn-rimmed glasses and babushkas that they never take off. They carry huge purses. They're funny. They're tough. They're smart. They're not at all what you'd think they would be.

They will say what everybody else is thinking but people are afraid to say. There's no filter. They're very comfortable in the old world way of doing things. A lot of the humor comes from that. I love it when I'm in their heads and writing for them. It's just silly.

It's just one of those odd things. We get calls, "When's Lottie and Bernice coming back?" Almost as if they're real people.

>How did you you start writing plays?

Growing up I had enjoyed writing I was in "Christmas Carol" with Neil Radice at the Alleyway. I had gone all the way through my life without seeing it.

So we started doing it with our company because I love it so much. Here was a Christmas story that wasn't sappy. It's a ghost story. And I love horror. I just thought this is the coolest ever.

>But then, after three productions, you needed something else?

I got sick of it. There are no more good Christmas stories besides "Christmas Carol." So the company said, "Put up or shut up. Write one." That was pretty much what they said to me. I wrote it in '88. "All Through the Night" was my first play. [In] 1989 at the Riviera Theatre, was the first place it debuted.

It's a group of travelers trapped in a rural train station on Christmas Eve. So it's a blizzard, and they're trapped. That's basically the story, the framework. Different people of different faiths, different backgrounds.

I sent that one out, and that was published. "All Through the Night" has played Christmas somewhere in the world, every year since we did it. And this year -- my wife helps me keep track of it because it's my favorite play -- our little story will play in six different theaters across the country. I'm just thrilled.

>Your plays have been published by six different companies? Eldridge Plays and Musicals is a favorite?

Eldridge has really believed in my work. They advertise in the different periodicals. I had a great editor.

He was really hard on my stuff. He'd say, "No, no, no." He'd say, "You can't do this. You can't do this. This is no good." He'd rip it up. Of course, now I appreciate all that he did. He'd say, "This is too long. This is too much. You've got to race for the curtain. You don't need this extra scene here." At a certain point, the audience knows it's almost over and you have to meet that expectation.

He'd tear my stuff apart like nobody else had done. I'd never met him. It was all done online. He was there for about a year. He was assigned to me from Eldridge and then he was gone. This was about 10, 12 years ago. I wish I could remember his name. He really shaped me right up. He made me a better writer.


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