February 2, 2003 - Broadway to Vegas: It was while James Pelegano was in the Peace Corps stationed on the South Pacific island of Tonga that the oceanographer became friends with the island physician

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tonga: Peace Corps Tonga : The Peace Corps in Tonga: February 2, 2003 - Broadway to Vegas: It was while James Pelegano was in the Peace Corps stationed on the South Pacific island of Tonga that the oceanographer became friends with the island physician

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It was while James Pelegano was in the Peace Corps stationed on the South Pacific island of Tonga that the oceanographer became friends with the island physician

2003.html, It was while James Pelegano was in the Peace Corps stationed on the South Pacific island of Tonga that the oceanographer became friends with the island physician


Jim Pelegano - told not to give up his day job. Photo by: Jim Baldassare
Usually when an actor/director is told - don't give up your day job - it's considered an insult.

James Pelegano is an actor turned director who is helming Alma and Mrs. Woolf, which opens March 7 at the Blue Heron Theatre in New York City. People constantly tell him to never give up his day job.

In his case the comment is a compliment.

When the man isn't directing plays, James Pelegano, M.D. is Director of the Division of Neonatology and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (treatment of critically ill newborn infants) at Maimonides and Lutheran Medical Centers in Brooklyn.

Broadway To Vegas spoke with him about his unique ability to expertly travel both forks in the road.

Of Italian heritage, the Waterbury, Connecticut native was born with theatre in his blood. "My mother's father was a Broadway playwright named Joseph Carole. He wrote about 30 plays. The first, Separate Rooms, ran in New York for about a year-and-a-half," he related about the original comedy staged by William B. Friedlander. It opened March 23, 1940 at the Maxine Elliott's Theatre, transferring to the Mansfield Theatre and then to the Plymouth Theatre, where it closed September 6, 1941 for a total of 631 performances.

"Then he went out to Hollywood for awhile and wrote in B movies," he said referring to his grandfather's profession from 1940-1949. One of those flicks was a light, musical romance Ladies of the Chorus, which starred Marilyn Monroe - making her second appearance on film - as a chorus girl infatuated with a wealthy man who had once loved her mother.

Pelegano was also born with a few drops of business blood. His mother is a college English professor and he father was a business manager for a school system.

"My Dad's family was in the produce business. I think they ran a vegetable stand," continued Pelegano. "But, my mother's father was a playwright. So, the theatre was always in me. When I was a very young boy, 13-years-old, I said to my father - I want to be an actor. My father almost had a heart attack - as most Italian fathers would do. He said to me - You can be an actor, but get a really good day job first. I remembered that."

"When I graduated from medical school, at the age of 26, I came to him and said - Okay, I've got a good day job. Now can I be an actor?"

His road out of medical school is a story usually found only in a script.

Dramashop design and illustration by Eddie Kohler
"I went to school at MIT," he related about the highly regarded Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Their drama department is huge. MIT is fairly well off," said Pelegano who rattled off what would be the envy of most off Broadway theatres. "We had our own theatre. We had our own prop department, three full time people, a designer, a construction stage manager and a director who worked basically with us."

"It was run at the time by Professor Joseph Everingham. In fact, my claim to fame was I worked with Jimmy Woods. Jimmy Woods and I were contemporaries. We acted together a few times," recalled Pelegano about the lean, intense actor who attended MIT on a full scholarship majoring in Political Science, but dropped out of school just a few credits shy of graduating.

"Professor Everingham was a great believer in the classics. We did Chekhov, Shakespeare and Gorki. I was pretty heavy into what was called the MIT Dramashop. My senior year I was president of the Dramashop."

MIT Dramashop is a co-curricular student theater group open to all members of the MIT community which offer opportunities for people interested in acting, directing, stage managing, writing, and designing or building sets, lights, sound, and costumes. Dramashop presents two major productions each year, one during IAP and one during spring term; during the fall term, they produce a set of student-written, student-directed one-act plays.

He graduated, not with a degree in drama, but with a B.S. in geology and geophysics. "I was an oceanographer. I worked at Scripps Institute of Oceanography for awhile."

Then he entered the Peace Corps. It was while he was in the Peace Corps stationed on the South Pacific island of Tonga that the oceanographer became friends with the island physician. That friendship inspired Pelegano to enter medical school.

"I was accepted at the University of Rome in Italy," he continued. Rome, Italy? "To be honest with you, at the time, it was very difficult to get into school here. I applied to a number of American schools and to a number of Italian schools. We had some good friends who lived in Italy."

Fortunately, he had learned the language as a child. "By the time I was there for six months I was fluent. I think it was the old story that it was already programmed into my head from when I was about two years old. The classes were taught all in Italian. All of the exams were oral and in Italian."

"So, we lived there for five years. I graduated and came back to this country. It is like anyone else who goes to a foreign school. The Educational Council for Foreign Medical Graduates - ECFMG - puts forth what you have to do at any particular time. I took their exam and I took licensing exams. I did all of the things that I needed to do to be able to come to this country and get a license."

"I did a residency here in the United States. I started my residency at Poly Clinic Hospital in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania which is one of the Hershey affiliates. Then I went to Bridgeport Hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut which is a Yale affiliate."

The future theatrical director was now a full fledged pediatrician.

While his life may have a wide focus, his vision was always on children. "I find children very honest. I find them easy to deal with and they seem to feel comfortable with me. Eventually, after training and working in private practice for four-and-a-half-years, as a general pediatrician in Connecticut, I decided I wanted to go into neonatology. I did a fellowship in neonatology at the University of Connecticut in Farmington."

With that sub-specialty under his belt the family moved to Milwaukee. "I don't think very many people realize that Milwaukee is a very big theatre town - community theatre, professional theatre, semi-professional theatre."

"So, we were out there, settled in. It was sort of like - now I have all of this free time. I was working, but I still had extra time," said Pelegano who has boundless energy. "My wife said to me - Look, why don't you go back to the theater."

"I hadn't done any acting since college. I just didn't have the time. I auditioned for a community theatre production of Dial M for Murder. I'm a character actor. I auditioned for the part of Hubbard, which is the inspector. The English accent came out and the next thing you know, I was cast. Over the next six years I appeared in about 12 different productions. I played Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. I played Max in The Sound of Music."

"Then my wife wondered - What did I let loose here," he laughed.

Janine Pelegano starring in The Miracle Worker which her father directed
Their three children were not only at the theatre watching daddy perform, they got bit by the bug. "My daughter played the lead in The Miracle Worker, which I directed. A little nepotism there, but - she actually was the best one for the part. She did a bang up job."

So did Pelegano who was game for anything.

"I did stage managing and directing, design work for a couple of productions and I appeared in The Fantasticks as the old actor, which was interesting because when I was in college I played the mute."

"Then we decided that we wanted to come back East. My wife is originally from Brooklyn. I got a job at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, part of Columbia University, where I was on the faculty. But, I didn't want to let the theatre stuff go."

Pelegano has a good friend who writes for a major New York newspaper. "I had gone to medical school with her husband. She offered to put in a good word for me with a producer she knew who was doing a play that needed a cast of 19."

Aspiring actors who think all they need is a connection should think again. Pressure on a producer can even backfire. The strong suit is ability, versatility and a willing to help attitude.

"The audition was on a night I was in a medical conference. The producer and I became friends and later she told me that she looked at that as her way out - we were auditioning one night, you were busy - sorry. She would have kept the reporter happy and not felt pressured to hire me."

"When I missed the audition I said - Well, if you need anybody to take tickets, or whatever you need, I'm here. About a week later I got a phone call. She said they had lost their production stage manager and would I be interested? This was for an off-off Broadway. I said sure. So, I started stage managing in New York. I stage managed over a dozen productions, mostly with Blue Heron Theatre."

The Rescuers by Elizabeth Striker had Pelegano as director/stage manager
"The play I was the original stage manager for, The Rescuers, was going to tour. The director couldn't come back and half the cast found other things. She approached me and asked if I would be willing to restage it, mount it and direct it for the tour. I said sure. I did that and then I went out of town with it as the production stage manager. I took a leave of absence from the hospital. It wasn't a long tour, about four weeks. We went to Washington and then Purchase, New York and then back to Manhattan for another couple of weeks. It did really well. It was an Equity tour, so I signed an Equity contract and became a member."

"That was my beginning as a director in this city."

Medal of Honor Rag directed by Jim Pelegano. Sets & Lights by Roman Tatarowicz
"Two years ago a very fine actor, Tom O'Leary, who played the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway for a year-and-a-half, came to me and said he really wanted to do something different - to get away from musicals. We found a play called Medal of Honor Rag, which was written in the 70s. I'll never forget we were reviewed by The New York Times. The guy showed up to review it and you never think about what is going to happen after that. You just hold your breath. I picked up the newspaper and on the front page of the weekly arts section, there was this headline and a picture of the actors. I thought I can't believe it! They loved us!"

From that point on Pelegano maintained a dual life.

"I continue to work in the theatre. I have optioned a play for the fall that I am hopefully going to do through the same production company. I try to do a production a year, plus help out here and there."

Director Jim Pelegano (far right) confers at rehearsal of Alma and Mrs. Woolf with (from left to right): Nicole Orth-Pallavicini and Joan Grant. Photo by Jim Baldassare
Currently he is directing Alma and Mrs.Woolf by award winning French-Canadian playwright Anne Legault, translated by Daniel Libman, which is concluding the 15th season of the Blue Heron Theatre.

A musical prodigy from Western Canada, Alma Rattenbury (1897-1935) led and intriguing life of celebrity and scandal. Accused of murdering her third husband, a jury in a sensational trial acquitted her. She nonetheless found herself publicly reviled and friendless.

Nicole Orth-Pallavicini and Joan Grant in Alma and Mrs. Woolf Photo By: Richard Termine
In Alma and Mrs. Woolf, Alma finds herself, shortly after her trial, imprisoned in a library reading room with none other than the distinguished British feminist essayist, critic and novelist Virginia Woolf. Joan Grant and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini portray Virginia Woolf and Alma Rattenbury respectively.

"Along the same lines I am a volunteer physician for the Actors Fund, which runs a program called Physician Volunteers for the Arts," explained the doctor/director. "This is a group of physicians in New York, under the guidance of Dr. Barry Kohn, who provide free services to people who work in the arts, primarily theatre people. The Actors Fund gives us physical facilities, but we are independent of them, to a certain extent. I work two half days a month. I see people who have no insurance, or are underinsured, and we try to get them deals if they need some special tests, or a sub-specialist who doesn't work with us. It's all free. It's a really wonderful service."

Dr. Barry Kohn administers a free flu shot as part of Physician Volunteers for the Arts, supported with a grant from BC/EFA.
The program was started by a physician with a passion for the theater Barry A. Kohn, MD, a retired San Francisco pediatrician, allergist and immunologist. In 1999, Dr. Kohn received a $100,000 grant from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS that allowed him to hire a full-time coordinator and actively recruit other physicians to volunteer at the clinic.

"Then we do other things," continued Pelegano. "Like this year, Barry, myself and a couple of other docs went to all the Broadway houses and gave flu shots to all the Broadway casts. That is my other tie in to the theater in New York City."

"At Maimonides Medical Center I am director of Neonatology. Five years ago I was recruited by the new Chairman of Pediatrics. We re-structured the neonatal division at Maimonides."

The history of Maimonides Medical Center spans a period of over eight decades. It was originally founded in 1911 as the New Utrecht Infirmary in the rural settlement called Brooklyn. With 24 fully accredited residency and fellowship programs, 700 full-time and voluntary faculty; over 350 residents and fellows and approximately 800 medical student rotations per year, it is one of the largest independent academic medical centers in the United States.

Dr. James F. Pelegano examining a tiny patient at Maimonides Medical Center
"We have one of the largest obstetrical delivery services in the state of New York," continued Pelegano who is self-effacing about his own accomplishments. "We have over 5,500 deliveries a year. Lutheran Medical Center is about 10 blocks away and I am also the director there. I work with six other neonatologists. It's a huge service. About a year ago the State of New York designated us as one of 17 regional perinatal centers in New York state. So, I am also the director of the regional perinatal center for Maimonides and Lutheran which is part of a huge state network."

For all his success Pelagano is not without his quirks. For instance, the letter J.

"I like the J's. It's an affectation I've had since I was young."

His wife's name is Janice. Their three grown children are Janine, Justin who is a budding playwright, and Jonathan. Even the pets. "We have two cats at the moment. Their names are Jack and Jitters."

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Story Source: Broadway to Vegas

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