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Where’s Wally? At the heart of the Playhouse, of course

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Editor’s note: This story originally ran in Stu News Laguna on January 28, 2020. It was on our favorites of 2020, and we wish to run it again today in celebration of this. We also wish to honor Laguna Playhouse, whose 100th anniversary season was interrupted by the pandemic. We look forward to attending a show at the Playhouse again soon, when it safe to do so.

Ask most male actors what roles they’d love to play, and you’re likely to be told Lear, or Hamlet, or maybe even Hannibal Lecter.

But you won’t hear that from the mouth of Wally Ziegler, one of the Laguna Playhouse’s most recognizable and beloved staff members. 

No, in high school, Wally was thrilled to be chosen to play Elwood P Dowd, a character whose relationship with a large invisible rabbit named Harvey leads to a stay in a mental hospital, until he is set free and his eccentricities finally accepted.

Wally would have been excited to play Elwood again as an adult, but his acting career never really took off in the way he’d hoped.

Still, his love of the role makes perfect sense when you learn that he practiced as a psychiatrist back in the mid-eighties after earning his MD in Guadalajara, Mexico. 

Not that Wally stayed in that profession for long.

“The red tape, the politics, and the drama, it all drove me crazy,” he says, in the colloquial sense of the word, of course. 

But to this day, he’s fascinated by the workings of the human mind.

Wheres wally wally

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Wally Ziegler, beloved of Playhouse staff and patrons

So Wally left the medical world and in 1986 took a job as a bartender at his brother Karl’s Laguna Village Café, located where The Cliff now stands, immediately reducing his stress levels. 

Then he began volunteering at the Playhouse.

Most patrons, even those who’ve known Wally for years as the amiable, pony-tailed guy milling around the front of house, making sure all is going well on show nights, have no idea quite how integral he is and has been to the functioning of the Playhouse in the past few decades.

But we’ll get to that a little later.

Growing up: A hippie at war

Wally grew up in Altadena and attended Pasadena High School, where he took part in many school plays. He was also a member of the Pasadena Boys Choir, and sang arias from operas including Carmen and Tosca.

“But I was never going to be a triple threat,” he says. “Can’t dance!”

He attended Washington State University. Then came Vietnam.

“I got drafted in 1967. I became a conscientious objector, but then I decided I wanted to serve our country in battle to help the wounded. After extensive training with Special Forces Medical Training, I was sent to Vietnam as a combat medic,” Wally recalls.

“During the war, my brother Karl was living in South Laguna with hippies and protesters, and he’d send me pictures of him and friends in marches or parades, and I would put them up in my hooches in ‘Nam,” he adds. “The guys would take a look at them and cheer, they’d say, yes, please, tell them, get us out of here!”

Once he got back to the States in 1970, Wally fully embraced hippie-dom.

“I decorated my field jacket from the Army with flowers, peace signs, and anti-war slogans. The ‘V’ for victory sign became the peace sign, and I’ve used it as a greeting and a goodbye sign ever since,” he says. 

“Hey, I’m still a hippie. I continue to let my Freak Flag wave, that’s my long hair.”

Wheres Wally memorabilia

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Theatre memorabilia 

“Wally’s World,” as his cubby backstage and down some stairs is known, is crammed with theatre memorabilia including half a rubber skeleton, an unopened bottle of Guinness gifted to him by an Irish director, Russian dolls, posters, flyers, and photos of the many actors he has known through the years – and, naturally, a large peace sign.

Ushering in a new era

In 1995, after two years as a paid staff member, Wally was appointed House Manager, with duties that included dealing with actors’ contracts, Equity requirements, housing, transportation, and rehearsals, to mention just a few of his responsibilities.

Later he added two more hats: he worked as the prop master and casting coordinator, helping director Andy Barnacle with logistics and decision-making.

“We’d get as many as 600 submissions, and we’d audition 60-120 people every day, choosing three to four actors for each role,” Wally says. “Over time you develop an instinct, you can tell who feels it, who is going to evoke emotion, and who is just mouthing things. Though there was one woman who aced the audition and she was terrible in the play. It happens.”

Although Wally has cast many, many stars, his most memorable was Julie Harris, the five-time Tony award-winning actress in her role as The Belle of Amherst.

Wally’s knowledge of psychiatry turned out to be extremely valuable in his new profession.

“Actors are a rare breed in their motivations, behavior, and personalities because of the roles that they portray, and the veteran actors become more and more adept on taking on so many different characteristics other than their own,” Wally explains. 

“Working with them, helping them with their challenges across the board, I’d use techniques similar to those I’d used as a therapist.

“Several times I was a technical advisor to war plays we produced, because of my experience in Vietnam, and many directors/actors would ask me about behaviors or motivations of a certain character in a play.”

Dealing with the bigwigs – and the little wigs…

“In those days and now, as Artist and Audience Services Manager, I deal with the bigwigs – and the little wigs,” he says. “I work with everyone, from the box office to the actors to the marketing department to the janitorial staff.”

Wheres wally backstage

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Wally backstage: He’s familiar with every aspect of Playhouse operations

Over time, Wally has become a resident doctor of sorts at the Playhouse, his medical degree coming in useful too.

“In my earlier years we had many patrons fall because we didn’t have handrails or good lighting,” Wally says. “It became the assumption that at least one person would fall at each show. So I would attend those patients, or call in the paramedics. We added more aisle lights and handrails, and then constructed new steps all the same height.

“That meant many fewer falls, but we still had medical emergencies. One time a box office member ran out to me a few minutes before our show started and said, ‘Wally, I think one of your ushers has just died!’ I ran to the office and she was slumped over and not breathing and no heartbeat. I initiated cardiac massage while the paramedics were called and I did get the heart started and had her breathing when they arrived.” 

Fun with props

As prop master also, Wally haunted consignment and antique stores for items as disparate as rotary phones and, once, a huge observatory-style telescope for the play Stella by Starlight borrowed from its owner in Anaheim. It was insured for a million dollars.

“One of the most fun and interesting props was from Main Beach for a scene involving the ocean. We brought in loads and loads of sand onto the stage. Another show we had a Venetian canal filled with water and a gondola paddling through,” he says.

Wally by the numbers

“Ask Wally, that’s what people say when they want to know any trivia about the Playhouse,” he’s proud to say, his passion for the place practically palpable.

At this point, he’s been involved in 180 Main Stage productions, 85 Youth Theatre productions, and 79 shorter engagements.

He owns 80 ties, which he wears with his suit every show night, theming them according to the current production. One favorite resembles a parrot, another a Gibson guitar. He brings out his piano-themed tie whenever Hershey Felder is on stage.

Wheres wally ties

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Wally loves his ties – he chooses them depending on the shows

Wally loves driving. His “Yellow Baby” – a Volkswagen Beetle – reached 440,000 miles. His current car is clocking in at 160,000 miles. He bought a house in Lake Arrowhead last year and makes the 160-mile commute five days a week.

“I’ve been to 63 out of the last 64 Rose Bowl games,” he adds. “I missed 1970 because I was in Vietnam, but I watched it on Armed Forces TV.”

He’s still standing

While Wally’s role has changed over the years, the 71-year-old still sets up appointments for the Main Stage and Youth Theatre, acts as “middle man” for all departments, orders custodial and other supplies, is in charge of front of house, and mans the patio bar, among numerous other duties. 

Wally treasures Tamzen, his Border Collie, who comes to work with him every day (as do 11 other Playhouse dogs with their people). 

Tamzen is his surrogate Harvey, his comfort, the one he can talk to about his deepest thoughts, knowing he can rely on her loyalty, her love, and her ability to keep secrets. Skittish around kids, “she’s a one-man woman,” Wally says affectionately.

With that, a smile, and a peace sign, he ducks back into Wally’s World, blending into the background, one of the many irreplaceable treasures to be found at the very heart of the Playhouse.