Maybe Tolstoy had it wrong with his famous comment that all happy families are alike.
Sure, every happy family has its share of laughs. But the Pintellos of Gilroy have drawn on a reservoir of laughs that the rest of us can only envy. For the Pintellos, you might even say that humor is the family business.
The title of the family’s namesake theater company—Pintello Comedy Theater—tells you all you need to know about their orientation to performance art (and, frankly, their philosophy of life). Since 2003, the Pintellos have staged an astonishing 68 shows, every one of them a comedy. The theater’s guiding principle, credited to family matriarch Marion Pintello is “We only do comedy, because we all have enough drama in our lives.”
Marion, her husband Rod, their adult children Whitney and Simon, and Whitney’s husband Charley Gilmore form the core of the all-volunteer theater company that mounts four shows a year at the Gilroy Grange Hall, including their upcoming production Norm Foster’s play-within-a-play farce Opening Night.
While most folks might gather the family around for an occasional evening of board games or movies, the Pintellos will regularly assemble in the living room with a bottle of wine and a few friends to read aloud from scripts.
“We laugh all the time,” said Whitney Pintello. “My parents have always had a really youthful sense of humor,” she said of Rod and Marion, who are now in their seventies. “And they always let us in on the grown-up jokes since we were young. I feel like we’ve all grown to be really in tune with each other.”
The Pintellos have been a foundational family in the South Valley theater community going back more than 30 years. Rod and Marion each had a brother who was a professional actor, but they themselves chose theater only as an enjoyable sideline and a way to engage with the community.
Rod Pintello, in fact, had zero experience in theater until the age of 36, in the early 1980s, when he volunteered to be part of the set crew of a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar. “I was a big fan of that show, and I volunteered just for a chance to hear the music,” he said. To his surprise, he was persuaded to join the cast.
At that point, Marion had had some experience as a director in her youth, and the couple decided to dive into the thriving subculture that supported Gilroy Community Theatre, which eventually became South Valley Civic Theatre. The Pintellos participated in productions, encouraged their daughter and son to perform in the children’s productions, even joined the theater company’s board of directors. They were also big players in another theater group called Center Stage.
But when Center Stage director Russ Hendrickson moved out of town, there were fewer opportunities for actors and directors interested in light comedies. The emphasis at SVCT was toward big splashy musicals, partly to maximize the number of people in the community who could be part of the cast. “If you couldn’t sing in a musical, or didn’t want to sing, you weren’t going to get cast in shows,” said Rod.
Finally, the Pintellos decided to break away and do their own thing, focus only on comedy, and take their chances. “My dad had put aside a little money in savings,” said Whitney, “enough to do one year. We decided, let’s just see if we like doing this. If we use up all the money at the end of the year, then we’ll say that was fun, and move on with our lives.”
But the audiences did come, at least enough to raise the money to pay for the next show. That first show was called Holiday Snap, a witty mistaken-identity comedy. “Looking back on it now,” said Rod, “we can’t believe some of the stuff we did with duct tape and extension cords. It was a real learning experience for us.”
In its early incarnation, Pintello Comedy Theater was an itinerant troupe, performing wherever it could find an available stage. Then, the Pintellos discovered the Gilroy Community Grange, which was being used only sporadically by agricultural organizations and square-dancing groups. PCT had found its home.
At the same time, Rod and Marion were slowly being drawn into larger community-theater circles, attending shows and festivals across North America and developing relationships with other producers and even notable playwrights. That includes celebrated and much-produced writer Norm Foster, often called “Canada’s Neil Simon.” The Pintellos have produced more than a dozen of Foster’s plays, and have often corresponded with him about prospective works they might produce. They have also nurtured a relationship with Jones Hope Wooten, a three-person playwriting team known for their Southern-themed humor, and have presented two of the trio’s plays as world premieres.
“Sometimes, we’ll take a trip just because we want to see some small theater somewhere do a show we’ve done, or a show we’d like to see,” said Rod who has directed about a dozen of PCT’s shows (Marion and Whitney direct most of the shows). “Talking with other owners and producers, seeing what they’re interested in, hearing about their productions—that’s all a big part of what we do.”
The focus is on maintaining a flexibility of material. The Pintellos like to mix it up in their selection of material. A daffy farce one time, a witty elegant comedy the next. They’ve produced famous crowd-pleasers such as Simon’s The Odd Couple and the popular musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and next year, they plan on staging the immortal Little Shop of Horrors. But they are just as likely to take a chance on an unknown playwright, as long as they think the play is funny. “People will write to us,” said Whitney, “and (say) ‘I’m a new playwright. Would you consider my stuff?’ And we’re like, ‘Yes, absolutely!’”
Most of their plays are family friendly, but they are not afraid of the risqué or the edgy. Perhaps their most ambitious production to date was the musical Avenue Q, an often salty comedy featuring puppets which ranks as one of the most popular draws on Broadway of the new millennium.
But Pintello Comedy Theater is much more than a family affair. It has brought in more than 120 locals as performers and has built its own culture of actors, volunteers, audiences and other supporters. The theater’s roster of regular players is strong enough that the Pintellos never have to audition parts. They can mix and match from the actors that they know. Often, they’ll draw in locals who might have little to no experience in acting or even desire to perform.
“We’re constantly auditioning people and they don’t even know it,” said Rod. “We’ll be at some function or some event, and we’ll nudge each other, ‘Listen to that person’s voice. Listen to how they tell a joke.’ Then, we’ll approach them, ‘Hey, you ever been to the theater?’”
The only aspect of comedy that the Pintellos draw a bright red circle around is comedy that is vicious or mean-spirited. A lot of satirical comedy, especially in these Twitter-ized times, can draw blood. The Pintellos are unanimous in avoiding that brand of comedy.
“That’s one thing we all agree on,” said Whitney. “We want every character to have some kind of appeal. If there’s a character, even a villain, that you don’t like, if you’re uncomfortable when that character is on stage, you’ll have a tough time getting that to work.”
“We’re happy to make fun of just about anything,” said Rod. “But we will not degrade anyone. We’ll never do anything mean-spirited on stage. That’s not what we do.”
The Pintello family hopes that that spirit of bonhomie, of laughing at human foibles while at the same time connecting on a human level, spreads out from the script to the cast and even to the audience, which is after all made up of friends and neighbors.
“It’s such a social event,” said Rod of his company’s productions. “We’ll have 120 people in the place and each one of them saw 30 other people that they have to take a moment to visit with. We feel like we’re inviting people into our living room and we want to make them feel welcome in just that way. It doesn’t really matter what the show is. If the show is excellent, hey, that’s just gravy.”For more information about Pintello Comedy Theater at 8191 Swanston Lane in Gilroy and its upcoming performances, including ‘Opening Night’ by Norm Foster running Mar.15-31, visit pintellocomedy.com.