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By Jay Thorwaldson

Robert Kelley recalls early days of TheatreWorks and a remarkable journalist

Uploaded: May 4, 2010

The special recognition TheatreWorks received Monday night -- being called a "treasured cultural icon" at a Palo Alto City Council meeting and winning seven theatre critics awards in San Francisco -- triggered some remembrances of four decades back when I was a reporter at the erstwhile Palo Alto Times.

In 1970, our A&E editor, the late Paul Emerson, broke the news of the formation of a new theatre endeavor in Palo Alto being launched by an energetic Stanford creative-writing grad named Robert Kelley.

By the time I met Kelley he had settled into his trademark Elizabethan-style garb that, when combined with a neatly trimmed goatee, gave him a resemblance of a young Will Shakespeare -- better looking than the real thing, I always thought.

Emerson himself was a remarkable person, a kind of Renaissance Man who could review anything from plays to opera, concerts to solo performances, come back to the office and write the review, then get into his vehicle (a retired Times' delivery truck), drive to the Sierra, do a 60-mile loop hike and be back at work early Monday morning.

He once did a midwinter trans-Sierra trek, reporting that it was the "coldest I've ever been in my life."

He later became one of the strongest mountain climbers in the West, before chronic health problems afflicted his life. He once almost died of a foot-blister infection while on a 30-mile hike into a mountain in South America.

When he moved up to a climbing pack, he gave me his old backpack, a Kelty with one aluminum foot broken off from a fall in a scree field. He said the pack had done about 6,000 miles of hiking with him.

But at the paper he had a rare gift of being both an honest critic of art and entertainment events and a supportive friend of talented individuals and organizations.

"Paul was absolutely critical in our early development as a theatre company," Kelley reminisced Tuesday, confirming my own early 1970s observations as a newsroom colleague. Emerson could be both supportive and honestly critical, guiding and advising in his writings and personally.

"There was no real reason why we caught his attention, but we did," Kelley recalls. At 22, he and others in the small troupe "were a part of the community not being heard from" in the arts field. Kelley said Emerson's successor, John McClintock, followed his example and contributed to the group's continuing success and growth.

Kelley, perhaps still in the glow of the Monday night accolades and awards, said Tuesday he has no regrets about his decision and early struggles to establish TheatreWorks. The relationships along the way have been rich and rewarding.

"In theatre, everything's a collaboration," he said.

Could he or another young artist do it again today?

"It would be a challenge, but it would be a fun challenge," he said. "I've been asked exactly that question many times."

And he takes time to share advice, as if following the path of Emerson of decades ago. In fact, he has an appointment this weekend to meet with someone who desires to create a theatre group in another community further north.

He said the advice he will give is twofold: Know yourself and what you believe in, and know your community.

"What I wanted to talk about and write about was the community, about us" in Palo Alto and the Midpeninsula, Kelley said, encapsulating his 40 years of creativity.