Delray Beach: Retirement to Gillie means looking ahead

7960599461?profile=originalJoe Gillie, outgoing president of Old School Square in Delray,

poses with a mannequin wearing a dress by Delray Beach designer Amanda Perna.

Perna, 28, returned to Season 14 of Project Runway.

Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

7960599675?profile=originalKay Brady, Joe Gillie and Susan Hatfield of the Caldwell Cabaret

starred in Gold Diggers Revue at the 1989 Mizner Festival.

Photo courtesy of the  Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum

By Thom Smith

    Joe Gillie’s life as a teenager in Danville, a Virginia mill town, was typical. He sang in the church choir. He appeared in a school production of Meet Me in St. Louis. He wasn’t particularly fond of school.
    But life is filled with unexpected and serendipitous turns. After turning away from an expected life on the fourth shift at the mill, first one way then another, he was drawn back to an old schoolhouse. In 1992 — after nearly three years on the board — Gillie accepted an appointment as president and CEO of Old School Square Cultural Arts Center in Delray Beach. The next year, he opened the Crest Theatre, spearheading Old School Square’s rebirth and creating the magnet for a sleepy city’s transformation.
    But in September, with 25 years behind him and more turns to take, Gillie retired. On Nov. 8, a “few” friends will say “Thanks for the Memories,” a night of parties and performances. He agreed only on condition that it serve as a fundraiser for the center.
    While the retirement is official and he has an overflowing bucket list — he just returned from a month in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji — Gillie will not disappear. The path will always bring him back, but along the way he looks forward to the next surprise around the corner.
    Danville was the classic Southern town. The soil along the banks of the Dan River was ideal for growing tobacco. The river’s falls powered the mills that cranked out textiles to the world. Though always among the state’s 10 largest cities, its population never exceeded 55,000, but it boasted more churches per square mile than any other town in Virginia. Many streets were lined with stately mansions built by the mill owners and managers, just blocks away from the workers’ crackerbox row houses.
    As sure as river rocks churned up the rapids, tradition and mores dictated that Danville’s children likely would grow up to run the mills or work in them.
    Joe’s mother was a stay-at-home housewife; his father drove a Trailways bus, three times a week to Washington, D.C., and back.
    “My dad drove 38 years for Trailways, 2 million miles, and he never had an accident,” Gillie said proudly. “Things like that influenced my life. Both of my parents had a great sense of humor. They left little notes to each other and they didn’t hide ’em. It was great stuff.
    “We didn’t have people in the mill, but the town was THE MILL. It was still a great town to grow up in. You get small-town values; you get that sense of belonging in a community; you experience that ‘it takes a village’ thing on a daily basis.
    “If my mother wasn’t watching out for me and my two brothers and the other kids in the neighborhood, somebody else was. You learned that there are consequences to your actions. In Southern communities, you didn’t mess around. You thought before you did something.”
    Gillie thought long and hard about his prospects. He wasn’t a great student, but Averett College in Danville was more appealing than the mill. Established in 1859 as Union Female College, it converted in 1967 from junior college to four-year school and became co-ed. Gillie broke the news to his parents that he was interested in art, architecture, religion, maybe even preaching part-time.

    “They figured I’d be on the fourth shift at the mill and call it a day,” he said. “At first, they were not cool with it; they just didn’t understand it. But they got it once I started making a living.”
    With no computers to produce architectural drawings, Gillie developed a knack for drawing and painting. He also was picking up work wherever he could. He heard the drama department needed a backdrop painted for South Pacific.
    “I wasn’t really interested in the theater,” Gillie explained, “but I went over to paint the set and they said, ‘We’re short guys’ — for South Pacific, you need guys — ‘would you mind singing in the chorus?’
    “I said I’d do it, and, boy, I got hooked. In a small college you have to do everything, painting the sets, pulling the costumes, hanging the lights. If you want to be in a theater repertory company, you’d better be able to do all that.”
    Gillie didn’t want his parents to pay for college, so when he wasn’t working in the theater, he took odd jobs — classes here, work there. His four-year degree took seven.  
    “I wasn’t the best undergraduate student when it came to calculus and world religions, but I was straight A’s in theater,” he said. “They were happy when I walked across that stage to get my diploma.
    “But I got a lot of leads. That instructor, Betty Smith — she was a former Gibson Girl — pulled a lot out of me. She changed my life.”
    Rather than head for bright lights and big city, Gillie turned toward the coast, signing on with the Lost Colony production on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. With Tony- and Emmy-winning director Joe Layton running the show, Gillie’s education continued.
    In 1976, he headed south for his first real professional performing shot on the campus of the College of Boca Raton, now Lynn University, working for Michael Hall at the Caldwell Theatre Company.
    “Michael’s certainly a mentor and deserves a lot of credit for my career,” Gillie said. “And Jan McArt (Royal Palm Dinner Theatre). She gave me my Equity card. I got my first professional show there and my first Carbonell nomination — for Promises, Promises.
    Equity card and accolades in hand, he finally tried New York. He never waited a table. He found work at the Guggenheim Summer Theater and even took some turns on fashion runways. He was never not working.
    When the cattle call went out for Tommy Tune’s roadshow of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, he auditioned, with 800 other hopefuls. He survived the first cut, then after singing and dancing for five hours at the Winter Garden, he was signed as a swing dancer. He played 38 states, his proud parents often showing up to see their boy, who also served as assistant stage manager.
    “It was amazing, working with Tommy Tune and Alexis Smith,” he said. “She mentored me.
    “I’ve just been lucky.”
    But rather than return to New York, Gillie again reversed direction. A graduate degree would offer security — maybe he could teach theater at a college: The “lucky, poor student” landed a teaching fellowship at Portland State University in Oregon.
    He didn’t know a soul there, but in what he called “the best two years of my life,” he built lasting friendships, sang in the school’s jazz group and in his spare time, made $300 an hour modeling for Portland-based sportswear giants Nike, Pendleton and Jantzen. At Jantzen’s show, the models made their final run in black Speedos and delivered roses to each woman in the audience.
    “They loved it,” he said. “Back then I could handle it.”
    With a master’s degree and an outstanding scholar award from Portland State, Gillie returned to Florida and the Caldwell. He scored another supporting actor Carbonell nomination for Something’s Afoot. He teamed with South Florida veterans Susan Hatfield and Kay Brady in a cabaret show that ran at the Sheraton Boca Raton for eight years. But most of his theater work had moved offstage — booking, logistics, grant writing. He liked it and when he landed the Old School Square job in 1992, he hit the ground running.
    “We’re selling culture,” Gillie said. “The last few years, we’ve averaged about 500,000 people a year coming through here. Think about how many people we’re bringing into downtown. We know the impact we’re providing.
    “Our impact is $12 to $15 million annually and the city knows that. In less than five years our budget went from $2 million to $3 million. We’re bringing in national tours of major shows in this little place and people appreciate that. Our cabaret series, you can’t get a ticket to that.  
    “I’ve been around Palm Beach County long enough to watch a cultural wasteland grow into a cultural oasis. I’m proud that we were able to bring a new standard to this area. And it’s not just theater and art, it’s bringing a new level of accessibility to the site.
    “I also have a different way of doing things. People appreciate the fact that not only the arts are accessible but the people running the arts are. You don’t just go to the Kravis Center and walk into (CEO) Judy Mitchell’s office and say I didn’t like that show. Here, my door’s always open.
    “The whole idea about the arts is discovery and we’ve provided great opportunities in this community to discover exhibits and performances. I’m so excited after being here for 25 years, to retire and to watch it grow, because it’s gonna grow.”
    Accolades and budgets aside, and a new boss on the job — Rob Steele from Westport, Pa. —  Gillie’s ready for another turn on the road.
    “I’m not walking away, because I can’t,” he said, conceding he won’t be gone too far for too long. Besides, home is just a few blocks away. “I love what I’ve accomplished. We have one of the best teams in South Florida. We’re blessed with great board members. People in this community care about this facility. They’ve stepped up. I can’t think of another team I’d want to be with.
    “I don’t plan on removing myself from the facility. I’ll always be a part of it. I can’t not be. And I can’t wait to see where it’s going.
    “I could stay another 10 years, but being a creative person, there are other things I want to experience. Now I’ll have some time to do other things I hadn’t had time for before.”
    The bucket list includes a children’s book that’s written and he will illustrate. He wants to visit every national park, and — wink, wink — he’s a huge Disney fan.
    He’s been working with former Delray Mayor Dave Schmidt to develop a Three Cities Festival. Artists, craftsmen and performers from Delray and its sister cities Miyazu, Japan, and Moshi, Tanzania — and possibly a fourth, Aquinas, Haiti — would travel to each city to showcase the diversity and the similarities of each culture.
    Looking back, does Gillie have one accomplishment that stands out, that gives him the greatest pride? The decision to break out of Danville maybe? The tour with Best Little Whorehouse? The scholar honor at Portland State? Old School Square? Maybe that lifetime achievement award for leadership and artistic excellence in 2011 from the Boca Raton South Florida Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters?
    “That award was important because it recognized that what I was trying to do was making a difference,” Gillie said. “But I’m still waiting for the most incredible moment in my life.
    “I have a bottle of Champagne, Dom Perignon, that’s been in my refrigerator since 1984. I don’t know if it’s gonna be good or not. I’ve kept it cold. I’m waiting for that moment. Maybe it’s my retirement, I don’t know! But so far, I just can’t do it because I don’t think I’ve found that defining moment.
    “I think it’s around the corner. But I don’t know.”

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