1956 PHS graduate Joseph Robinette with Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in the 1983 film A Christmas Story. Robinette's Broadway play A Christmas Story! The Musical is based on the film and opens this November.
Even though he lives hundreds of miles away and has a play opening on Broadway this November, PHS graduate Joseph Robinette still keeps up with news from his hometown of Pickens.
“I’m a 40-year Progress subscriber,” Robinette said from the New Jersey residence where he lives with his wife Helen. “When I was about one or so, my parents moved me from Rockwood, Tenn. to Jasper, and that’s where I grew up.”
Robinette, who graduated from PHS in 1956, recently reached a high-water mark in his career with his play A Christmas Story, The Musical!, set to open on Broadway this fall.
“Yes, this is my first one on Broadway,” he said. “It’s kind of a rare thing. It’s very exciting.”
But wait a minute. Let’s rewind. How does a small-town boy make it from a house on South Main Street in Jasper to the pinnacle of the theatre world? It’s one of those stories we’re all attracted to: a child attends rural schools and still makes it big, but also manages to keep a charming, down-to-earth personality along the way.
Robinette has fond memories of growing up in Jasper, and he says his time here was instrumental in shaping what would later become a successful life in theatre. He speaks with great pride and respect for his school teachers and for his father Paul Henry Robinette, and for his mother Willie’s influence as both a stay-at-home mom and a school teacher at Reinhardt College.
There are no surviving relatives living in Pickens now, but while they were here the Robinette family was very active in the community, from business to civic to church activities.
As a young man Robinette’s father worked himself though Carson-Newman College in Tennessee, where he met his wife and became a teacher, but it wasn’t long after when Paul moved his family to Jasper to become an entrepreneur.
“He eventually decided he wanted more than teaching could offer,” Robinette said, “so he went into dry goods. He came through and was told this would be a good place to run a store, so he started dry goods store there in the Edge Building where the Progress is now, and five months later it burned to ground. He had to borrow money and people in the community were so nice to him.”
At one point Paul owned four businesses on Main Street: Jasper Bargain Store, Robinette’s Shoe Store, Robinette’s 5-and-10 Cent Store, and Paul’s Bargainette, these not including stores he owned in Chatsworth, Ellijay, Calhoun and Canton.
“The five and dime was like a Woolworths or variety store,” he said. “We sold candy, ice cream, comic books and toys, things like that. We moved to Jasper in 1941 and it wasn’t until the early 70s that my father sold the businesses to a fellow who worked for him. Then he began teaching English at Pickens Tech.”
Robinette’s family attended Jasper First Baptist Church where his father was a longtime deacon and choir member. He also served on the city council and was a member of the Jasper Lion’s Club.
As for his schooling, Robinette said his teachers expected a lot but were kind and encouraging at the same time.
“I really feel that the influence of my English teachers at Pickens High was terrific,” Robinette said, whose interest in language comes naturally from a father and mother who both taught the subject at some point in their lives. “I really felt like I got a good education there. I had wonderful teachers who really cared.”
Now Robinette is considered one of the most prolific playwrights in America and has a laundry list of accolades for his body of work, mostly children’s plays. He remembers being first “thrust” into theatre when he was 10 years old.
“My father imagined I would go off to college and come home to run the family businesses, but I was a little withdrawn and dad wanted to get me out of my shell,” Robinette said. “One night in early January he was reading a newspaper, and saw that a theatre group in Atlanta with professional actors was putting on a show and they needed boys age 6-10.”
At first Robinette told his father he wasn’t interested, “but then he got me,” Robinette said. “He said, ‘Well, you’d probably have to miss a couple of weeks of school anyway.’”
The next day Robinette’s father drove him down to Atlanta and, while not interested in theatre himself, gave his son the two best pieces of acting advice he has ever received. “He said talk loud enough so they can hear and clear enough that they can understand,” Robinette said.
He landed the part and performed at the Penthouse Theatre in the Ansley Hotel with Boris Karloff.
Following this first performance, which made a big impact on the young boy, Robinette then started participating in plays at schools, and by the time he graduated he was primed to study theatre.
“I would have preferred to go to UGA or the University of Tennessee, but I was ordained to go to Newman, with two parents who went there,” he said. “But, honestly, I think I would have been swallowed up at those schools.”
Robinette studied speech and English and did two summers of stock theatre, the later went on to teach English and speech at a high school where he also directed plays. Robinette later attended the University of Illinois where he dug deeper and deeper into theatre.
“While I was there I got two degrees, a wife who was in theatre, and two kids,” he said. “I did a lot of writing for theatre for stage and for summer shows,” he said. “For a while, like everyone else, I wanted to be an actor, but sometimes you have to dissuade yourself. Acting is so competitive and I had to ask myself if I wanted a long-term career what path it was I should take.”
Fast forward to 2012 and Robinette, who also spent 34 years teaching theatre at Rowan University, has written over 50 plays that have been published in numerous languages around the world. He has collaborated with E.B. White on the official adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, and has written other authorized dramatizations including The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe and Stuart Little. Robinette is also the recipient of the Charlotte Chorpenning Cup for his children’s plays; a Children’s Theatre Foundation of America medallion; as well as the American Alliance for Theatre and Education’s best dramatization of the year for Sarah, Plain and Tall, among others.
“A Christmas Story is seven years in the making,” he said, speaking of his most recent endeavor. “Three years ago it was done in Kansas City. Two years ago it was done in Seattle, and last year it went on a five-city tour.”
After the success in those cities, A Christmas Story, The Musical! was picked up by the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where it will open early November.
“We were wondering if the dates would be open, and fortunately they were,” he said.
Since Robinette’s father passed in 1987 and his mother three years later in 1990, Robinette has been to Pickens four times, including once each for his 40th and 50th high school reunions.
“The main thing I remember as a child living in town was the picture show,” Robinette said, who now has five children and nine grandchildren. “That was the high point. Saturday matinees were usually a cowboy film and there was a second feature, but I usually worked in the stores Saturday so I didn’t get to see the matinee much. Then when I was 12 they built a pool in town. In terms of recreation not much else, other than school and sports, but I have a lot of good memories.”
To learn more about A Christmas Story, The Musical! visit achristmasstorythemusical.com