John and Pamela Walker’s long pursuit of dreams and family
Two actors stepped to the front of the empty stage to take a curtain call all their own. Before them, the seats were empty and cold, behind them, the stage was bare. There were no cars in the lot, no interns taking tickets. Nobody to be seen at all in fact, just an actor and an actress returning to the Peninsula Players stage weeks after the fall staff had left to hunt for winter stages after the 2001 season.
Fifteen years had passed since Pamela Gay and John Walker last took their places here, though their hearts had never strayed far. She still spoke frequently of a gaudy ring she wore in one of her first roles, a ring she hated to give up when the playbill moved on to the next show. They too eventually moved on, first to Chicago, then to Los Angeles, and now to Berkeley, climbing the showbiz ladder in painstaking steps.
But this humble, revered stage on the wooded Green Bay shore is where they got their start, far from the big budgets and technology of their current employers at the animated blockbuster factory Pixar.
John and Pamela met as theater students at Notre Dame in the late 1970s before heading to opposite coasts. John went to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where he took a class taught by Jim McKenzie, who was the Executive Producer at Peninsula Players in the summer. John, originally from Chicago, had visited Fish Creek as a kid and begged McKenzie for an audition with the Players. He came on board as an actor in 1979, and Pamela joined the cast the next year after a stint at Circle in the Square Conservatory in New York City.
In the early 1980s, there was still barely a shoulder season in Door County. After Labor Day the roads were empty and most of the stores closed for the winter, as did the theater. But Walker had ached to perform Children of a Lesser God, for some time. He and Pamela studied sign language for over a year to prepare for the play, with one problem – it wasn’t slated for the stage. Then McKenzie suggested the two put it on in the fall – the Players’ first fall show.
“Eight or nine of us stuck around that fall and kept the theater open,” John remembered. “Jim made a deal where we had to pay for the heat, electricity and the food, and if we made any money beyond that, we would split it amongst the actors.”
The actors would stand at the bottom of the hill in Fish Creek on the corner, holding up playbills to entice tourists to the theater.
“There was nobody at the theater then, it was kind of spooky,” Pamela recalled. “We set up wood stoves and a fire pit at the back of the theater for heat, and people would bring their blankets to stay warm for the show. From the stage you’d look back and see the flames from the stoves when they opened them to add more wood.”
But the early seasons were all theirs and included the most important moment of John’s stage career.
At the end of a summer performance of Children of a Lesser God in 1981, the cast returned to the stage for a curtain call. These bows would be different. In the midst of the applause from a crowd of 500 John, the show’s star, dropped to one knee.
Jennifer Birmingham was a young girl prowling the Players grounds that summer at the feet of her father Tom, then the general manager, and remembered the moment.
“We had all been learning to do sign language,” she said. “Then after the show, they’re supposed to be done, and he’s still signing to her; and we’re all like, ‘Is he signing what I think he’s signing?’”
John proposed in sign language, and Pamela signed back a yes.
The couple spent the next few years working in Chicago theaters in the winter and returning to the Players in the summer. John still acted and auditioned for commercials, but he was wading ever deeper into management waters. He learned to be a producer at McKenzie’s feet, and became general manager of Peninsula Players in 1984.
“They were the stars,” Birmingham remembered. “It was very clear they were going to go someplace.”
Veteran stage, screen, and television actress Jean Sincere acted at the theater off and on from 1939 – 1995. She remembered the Walkers fondly.
“They were a lot of fun,” Sincere said from her home in Los Angeles. “Very good actors, and John was just very good at working with people and handling problems.”
Alan Kopischke, the Players’ Development Director who acted with John and Pamela in 1984, remembered Pamela’s magnetism and comic timing.
“John had this great everyman quality,” he continued. “You wanted to go along for the ride. That’s probably what makes him a great boss.”
John was passionate about the Players and about the connection between the art of the actors and the business of running the show.
“I always wanted to have my own company,” John said. “I wanted to do it in the tradition of the theater men of the late 1800s who owned the theater and toured the country.”
“I kind of thought I would single-handedly resurrect the genre,” he continued, sounding humbled. “I thought it was a good philosophy that the guy signing the checks was in rehearsal.”
Pamela gave birth to the couple’s first child, Miranda, during John’s first year as general manager. Miranda became a ubiquitous presence at the theater, raised on Pamela’s back and in the world of the theater, even getting a place in the playbill. Splitting time between seasonal theaters and auditions wasn’t the easiest way to make a career or a family, but they kept the struggle in perspective.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, but we were happy,” John said. Peninsula Players was a security blanket of sorts. “We always knew we’d have gainful employment in Door County in the summer.”
After working at the Chicago Opera House for several years, John took a position running the city’s new Royal George Theater, built in 1987. It meant their Players days were over, but not forgotten.
“I love that chapter of our lives,” Pamela said. “I practically had Miranda in a backpack, taking breaks in rehearsal to nurse her. It was like a summer camp for actors.”
John said his time managing The Players was an immeasurable lesson, describing it as “part restaurant, part hotel, part summer camp, with people age 12 – 65. It was also great training to be a dad.”
They weren’t on the fast track, but they were working, and climbing steadily. A few years later, an agent saw Pamela on stage in Chicago and offered to represent her in Los Angeles. The family, which now included a second daughter Caitlin, was soon packing for the West Coast.
When they got to Los Angeles, John developed a relationship with acclaimed Director Brad Bird, working as Associate Producer on his film The Iron Giant, released in 1999. The paring would prove fortuitous.
They lived in Pasadena for a while, then Bird was asked to make movies for Pixar, and he asked John to come with him. They would team up on one of the most successful and groundbreaking animated films of all time, The Incredibles (2004).
Though the technology behind the film was a far cry from the rustic setting of Peninsula Players – where he started with an electric typewriter, a mimeograph, and learned double entry accounting – John found himself leaning on his early experience on Door County’s shore as he managed a massive budget and staff on the west coast.
“Peninsula Players was a pretty well-run place,” he said. “All the things I learned about management and producing I learned from Jim and Tom.”
Now John works in the most technologically advanced movie-making studio in the world, where they’re changing the rules of animated film.
“Still, the stuff I use today came from that Players experience,” John said. “Arts organizations are always on the edge. The movie business is much easier. I don’t have to worry about making payroll. In theater, I was worried about making payroll on Friday for 18 years.”
Birmingham now works at Pixar in the production department and said John is respected there in part because he approached his job the same way he took on his work at the Players.
“He did every job he could at Pixar for a couple months so that he could understand what everyone had to do to get a film done,” she said. “That floored everyone. That and the fact that [he] can hold his own with Brad Bird, who’s a very powerful guy, just earns tremendous respect here.”
In an interview in McKinsey Quarterly magazine, Bird talked about the relationship he shares with John.
“My Producer, John Walker, and I are famous for fighting openly,” Bird said. “Because he’s got to get it done and I’ve got to make it as good as it can be before it gets done.” He continued, “If you ask within Pixar, we are known as being efficient. Our movies aren’t cheap, but the money gets on the screen because we’re open in our conflict. Nothing is hidden.”
As John was flying to Pixar’s campus near Berkeley for four days each week working on The Incredibles, Pamela raised the girls in Pasadena and pursued acting work “as heavily as I could as a part-time single mom.”
It was another in a long series of adjustments and accommodations the couple made to keep their acting and movie dreams alive, an unspoken agreement made on the Players stage in 1981.
John dreamt of being an actor as a child, not working behind the scenes as a producer and managing budgets. Pamela once envisioned them as “this great stage couple,” but their opportunities and skills took them elsewhere. When money was tight, neither asked the other to get the preverbal real job.
“We took the opportunities that came along and tried to work hard,” John said. “Neither one of us ever pressured the other to go become an accountant or doctor.”
“You have to say ‘This is who I am,’ and you don’t betray that,” Pamela said. “But you have to say ‘yes’ to opportunities that come along, without betraying your basic person.”
Raising a family and paying the bills while staying in the business required some accommodation.
“When you’re young you say you won’t sell out,” John said. “Then you get older and you realize you can’t figure out how to sell out even when you want to.”
Their journey has taken them far from those early dreams. John is now Pixar’s Director of Production, overseeing all films, and is working on pre-production for Bird’s first live-action feature, 1906, a big-budget epic about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, slated for 2012 release. Pamela teaches at Pixar University, the company’s educational wing. She also directed her own half-hour movie last fall through Pixar’s film co-op, called Trifles, and hopes to produce it as a full-length film through her production company, Ghost Ranch Productions.
“I never dreamed we’d end up living in San Francisco and working on animated films,” John said. “But that’s where the opportunities took us.”
It seems so far from the playbills of Peninsula Players, but as their 20th anniversary approached in 2001, they were drawn back to the theatre in a garden.
For 20 years John had listened to Pamela talk about the gorgeous two-karat diamond ring she borrowed from a local jeweler for her role as Elvira in Blythe Spirit at Peninsula Players. He took a stab at finding it, getting a Door County phone book and calling every jeweler in it. When he described it to the final number he called, Carats and Karats, he was stunned by the reply.
“Oh, Pamela’s ring!…yes, yes, I remember it really clearly. I made two and I wore the other one,” the voice said.
Walker could hear her shuffling some things over the phone. She looked in a drawer, “Yes, here it is. We were saving it for my daughter.”
When John told her he wanted to buy it for his wife, she didn’t hesitate, saying his was just too good a story.
In December 2001, the Walkers’ long, steady journey through theater and film took them back to the deserted Players stage on a chilly Door County afternoon. They stepped to the front of the stage.
“I asked Pamela to take a bow for 20 years,” John said. “And she took a bow for 20 years. Then I took a bow for 20 years, then we both took a bow for 20 years before an empty theater.”
Then, on the same stage where he proposed, John stunned her with the gaudy ring that still owned his wife’s imagination.
Behind the Scenes at Pixar
For a behind-the-scenes look at John Walker battling with Director Brad Bird to make The Incredibles, check out the film’s “DVD Special Features,” where he’s featured in a special commentary version with Bird as well as in the making of vignette.
Also keep an ear tuned to Mrs. Hoganson, an old lady looking to buy insurance, voiced by former Players cast member Jean Sincere.
Innovation Lessons From Pixar
To read the fascinating full interview with Brad Bird and John Walker about the battle between producer and director at Pixar, click here.