He was a towering figure among the giants assembled by Eugene Hanson at the Fine Arts Department of Coronado High School in Scottsdale, including Robert Frazier and Joseph Gatti. In those days, Scottsdale taxpayers happily funded public education. Coronado built one of the most respected fine arts programs in the nation. While other schools had a "senior play," we had seven or eight productions a year in the glory days of the 1970s, when I was blessed to be a student. These included a major musical and spring repertory, with productions at a level of sophistication and skill that could match university or professional theater. This was in no small part because of Jim Newcomer.
He drove a little red Beetle — one always knew he was on the job when it was parked behind the big roll-up door at the rear of the auditorium, even on weekends. He kept company with an enormous St. Bernard named Hildegard.
As the senior theater arts teacher, he taught acting as well as technical theater (lighting, set design and construction, props, costuming, makeup, etc.) Working in the stunning performance space designed by famed Phoenix architect Ralph Haver, we were repeatedly told by Newcomer that we might never again work in such an excellent facility. He was right. Most Broadway theaters were dumps. Plays at ASU were performed in the former college boiler room, the Lyceum Theater.
Newcomer was charismatic and striking, a tall man with a booming voice and laugh, a beard and long legs that splayed out whenever he sat down. Even the shyest student could find a place in Coronado theater, be it in property management or costuming. Yet all were a part of an enterprise that was demanding and professional. Excellence was Newcomer's true north and he got it.
He was, of course, "Mister Newcomer." A few seniors were anointed with the right to call him "Newcomer," although we (I was one) rarely used it. Even decades later, I had a hard time calling him "Jim."
For those who really committed to theater, and in whom Newcomer saw something, he could be incredibly demanding. One on one, he could give criticism that cut to the bone and left you bleeding — but he was always right. Yet one of his great skills was as what we would now call "a coach." He taught us that theater was more craft and hard work than inspiration. Or rather, that the muses only showed up when one put in the hours of work on the craft. As my mother the concert pianist was fond of saying, "Perfect practice makes perfect."
Working under Newcomer spoiled me for ever doing community theater or even second-rate productions elsewhere. Right down to the little things — rehearsal time meant arriving fully prepared 15 minutes early, peeking out from the act curtain to see the size of the audience was an unthinkable bit of amateurism.
Music, where my roots lay, could be a much more solitary undertaking. Unlike any other art form except for perhaps opera, theater is a uniquely collaborative endeavor. People must work together, from the acting ensemble to all the backstage workers. A blown light cue is a blown play. In the live theater, a unique communion happens between performers and audience. And it's different every night, even for the same play. Newcomer taught us this and so much more.
He was rightly beloved by his students. Some went on to professional stage and television careers. Others enjoyed success elsewhere, such as former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman. Irma Amado Griffin became chair of the Coronado Fine Arts Department. All were touched, molded, by Newcomer.
Newcomer was impressed by my stage management of West Side Story. It was indeed a moment when I felt as if I came into something, "my own" doesn't quite capture it. He arranged for me to enter the stage management apprenticeship program in Corning, N.Y. Had I done so, it would have led to an Equity card and a very different life. But both my mother and grandmother were mortally ill and I had to turn it down.
Later, I became an instructor in theater at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. I helped the late Molly Risso create a real theater department and the Oklahoma Shakespeare Festival (which continues under the leadership of her daughter, Riley Coker). Although Molly was a remarkable force in her own right, I channeled Newcomer — teaching classes, mentoring students, launching an ambitious summer repertory, working around the clock designing sets and lighting and overseeing their construction, giving director's notes. Later still, as a newspaper editor and turnaround artist for business sections, I channeled Newcomer. Discipline, excellence, high performance, love for those who got it, help for the ones who needed to get from A to B, not just Z.
For many years after I left Phoenix, I thought Newcomer was angry with me (he was blunt, as always, about my failings as co-director of America 76, a musical some of us ASU students tried to turn into a national project until we ran out of money). I stayed away from CHS class reunions because I thought I was such a failure. I wasn't at the New York Times. My novels languished in paper-ream boxes, unpublished.
Finally, I went back for my 25th reunion in 1999. I was in Charlotte, the Executive Business Editor of the Charlotte Observer, my theater days long past. My friend Jim Ford arranged dinner with Newcomer and I came with some trepidation. Yet it was as if I had never left the boards at Coronado. Newcomer was warm and gracious. More than that, I began to appreciate that I was special to him. He never tired of bragging on my performance as Emerson in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.
When I went to the Arizona Republic as a columnist in 2000, I renewed the connection, this time as adult friends. He frequently came to my book signings. After the Haver-designed auditorium was demolished, Newcomer brought me a brick from the building that had meant so much to all of us. On it, a gold plaque reads, "Why aren't you in jail? — Mr. Newcomer Thanks Waldo 9/2006." It's a play on a line from Thoreau. But theater at Coronado saved my life, gave me discipline and high standards and a path. Without it, without Jim Newcomer, I might have ended up in real jail.
They are now leaving us, one by one, the gifted teachers who helped make us the men and women we became. They saw and brought out the best in us. Soon we will follow them. And at God's table, I will again rejoice to Mister Newcomer's laugh.