A conversation with Randy Bowden, who retired from Wilson High after 46 years

Randy Bowden retired from his job as Wilson High School’s drama teacher at the end of the Spring semester, capping a 46-year career at the school. He and his wife Danielle plan on doing a lot of traveling and visiting grandkids in the easy years ahead. They live in the Los Altos area of Long Beach.

Q: I got out of Wilson in three years. You’ve been there for nearly half a century. How strange does it feel to not be going to school now?

A: Well, it’s summer vacation now, so it doesn’t really feel like retirement yet. My wife and I will be in Copenhagen when school starts. Everyone I know who’s retired from teaching says that on the first day of school you want to be on the other side of the world.


Q: How was your last day at Wilson High?

A: The send-off was wonderful. They told me the playhouse is going to be called the Randy Bowden Theater. There were a lot of tears, but that’s rewarding too. We’ll take the tears. We’ll take the tears.


Q: Have you bothered to figure out how many students you’ve taught during your career?

A: My wife and I were talking about it last night. It’s about 10,000 kids in 46 years.


Q: Did many of them go on to become crazily famous?

A: Actually, more of them went on to become psychologists and psychiatrists than drama. There’s something to be said about that. Some of them have offered me free sessions. But some have gone on in the business. Probably the best-know by my alums is Kevin Brief, who’s been in a lot of things (including “Criminal Minds,” “Justified” and “The Fosters”).


Q: Everything written about you on social media and elsewhere has been superlative. A lot of “the best teacher I’ve ever had,” “transformational,” “changed my life”… You’re one of those teachers that people are lucky to have; one that they remember all their lives. OK, I’m slobbering now….

A: It’s been a joy. There’s a misconception about drama students that they’re all over-the-top extroverts, loud and ostentatious, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. For the most part they’re super shy when they start. And it’s the performing arts teacher’s greatest delight to see them come out of their shells. It’s magic to watch; it’s incredible to watch. I get parents who come up to me later and joke that they like their child better when he or she was shy.


Q: How involved are the parents with your students?

A: My wife does directing, too, and she’s the house manager, and when there’s a performance we always watch the parents. They always have huge smiles and they get all wide-eyed. Especially the moms: You see them lip-syncing their kids’ lines because they’ve been going over them with their kids at home. It’s so much fun watching them.


Q: A lot of your work is extra-curricular. How busy are — were — you?

A: The rehearsals are all extra-curricular, and we’re rehearsing all the time. We do about 15 shows a year, three major productions and as many one-acts as we can do.


Q: What are your five favorite plays?

A: Out of ones we’ve done? I’d say:

  1. “The Children’s Hour”
  2. “The Laramie Project”
  3. “Almost Maine”
  4. “The Curious Savage”
  5. “Up the Down Staircase
  6. And I have to add “Winnie the Pooh.” My students would never forgive me if I left that off.


Q: You do some pretty innovative things to get your young actors prepared for roles.

A: We did a play called “Grand Central,” about the homeless. It’s a true story about a homeless girl who lived in Grand Central Station for two or three years. We did that show three times, and we went to the Long Beach Rescue Mission and the students served breakfast to the homeless, then I told them to go sit and talk to them, and they always come back with great stories about how these are real people. Some are taking classes at college or they just lost a job. It’s thrilling to watch, because the homeless will never be invisible to them again. When we did “Runaways” we went to Casa Youth Center in Los Alamitos. It affected them; they come back affected. They’re not the same people. With “The Laramie Project,” they got involved with the Matthew Shephard Foundation and learned about gay rights. We actually have had kids who came out during the production. And straight kds learned a lot too.


Q: So, why 46 years? At this point you couldn’t do four more?

A: That’s what my male friends ask me: Can’t you just tough it out for an even 50? Maybe I could, but I was starting to feel exhausted all the time. My daughters were worrying about me. I was getting more colds, more flus. It was just perpetual exhaustion. I was working 15 hours a day during production days, and sometimes more on weekends. When I started, I was just five years older than my first-year seniors. Now those people are 65.

Also — and I couldn’t tell this to my students — my wife and I had missed a bunch of benchmarks with our five grandchildren: Kindergarten graduations, soccer, violin recitals. When we decided I was retiring, my 4-year-old granddaughter up in Seattle asked her mom, “Does this mean Grandpa can go twick-or-tweeting with me?” And, you know what? That’s what I’m going to do. I’ll miss the plays terribly, but we can hit those benchmarks now.

And I’m still in good health. I wanted to go out on top. I want me to make the choice, not a disease. So, I’m very lucky. It adds to the celebration.


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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.