Creativity, passion run in blood of Walnut Creek’s Klitsner family
By Lou Fancher
In the garage-converted studio of his Eichler home in Walnut Creek, 96-year-old Stu Klitsner and co-performer Dale Hansen are rehearsing for a new music show.
During the first few tunes, Klitsner’s voice is rather raspy, his gaze entirely focused on the sheet music for the show’s eclectic playlist. Hitting the third selection, though, Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” he looks up, directs all his charisma toward a one-person audience and, his voice suddenly emanating like Freddie Mercury reincarnated, fills the room with spine-tingling vocals.
For Klitsner, there is literally “no time for losers” and he’ll “keep on fighting till the end.” For the listener, the hope is that he, his three adult children and the family’s collective creative energy — to quote the song again — “mean to go on and on and on and on.”
Klitsner is well-known in Bay Area theater, but some people may not know his resumé includes an early vocal career during which he was accompanied by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jerry Bock, who composed lyrics for “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Fiorello” and other musicals.
Others may not have recognized Klitsner in films (imdb.com/name/nm0459893) such as Will Smith’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006), Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry film “The Dead Pool” (1988), Malcolm McDowell’s “Time After Time” (1979) or in numerous appearances on television shows filmed in San Francisco. Only insiders might remember he once was selected to sing “It Might As Well Be Spring” with Celeste Holm on Art Linkletter’s television variety show, “House Party.”
“I only sang the word ‘spring,’ but I gave it everything I had,” Klitsner says in an interview. “Later, I got calls from people saying they loved that one note and wanted to hear a whole song. I remember my daytime job was spreading manure and someone called my employer. I ended up singing ‘I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine,’ a Dean Martin song.”
Klitsner didn’t spread manure for long and, holding a University of Wisconsin broadcasting degree, eventually became an English teacher and guidance counselor at Lafayette’s Stanley Middle School. Married to the late Diablo Theatre Company founder, choreographer and music director Rhoda Klitsner, who died in 2003, the couple raised three now-adult children, Tom, Amy and Dan Klitsner.
Tom, their oldest child, became a physicist and is the IT director at New Mexico’s Sandia National Laboratory. Dan, the Klitsners’ youngest child, says Tom is “really, really good at writing silly songs for family events.”
Amy launched an impressive career as a camera operator, working for “60 Minutes” on CBS and on NBC, ABC and other national networks. A 1994 car accident injured her spine, and she was forced to give up her goal of shooting major motion pictures.
Dan initially pursued engineering but found his true passion when, with Gary Levenberg and Brian Clemens, he co-founded KID Group LLC, which invents and licenses toys. Bursting into prominence with hit toys such as Bop It, Bop It Pro and Freefall, he says in an interview that the groundwork for his creative collaborative yearning traces back to his childhood and family home environment.
“I remember working with my neighbor,” Dan Klitsner says. “I would take apart something like an old robot toy with the idea to turn it into a room alarm.
“He’d do the electronics, and we’d work together on figuring out how to make it work. But even earlier than that was my parents being incredibly artistic and positive. There was always a ‘yes’ instead of a no.’ if I had a crazy idea, they’d let me be the instigator.”
He says his dad is an incredible and relentless listener, someone always listening for the good nugget in something and holding back judgement. His father was playful, warm, easy to connect with and slow to offer advice, Dan says.
“My mother was different. She’s where I get my ambition. She always had ideas about plays, dance, photography. She modeled having passion, going for artistic intentions, and trusting your gut to follow your dreams.”
His sister, Amy, in a separate interview says there was often music and dancing in the Klitsner home. Cast parties at the end of her mother’s shows were a highlight.
“The foot of my bed was by the door, and I’d put my head at the end, crack open the door and watch people make out on the staircase,” she said. “It was a big mixture of people singing, joyous.
“Dad was a teacher, so he was home all summer. We’d go camping with all of the Diablo Light Opera people. When Dan went to college, Mom said, ‘Don’t be an engineer. Be an artist.’ What kid’s parents tell their kid to do that?”
When their daughter chose to crack into the difficult enclave of mostly male network camera operators, she says she had total support from her parents.
“They were proud. I was gone a lot because I’d get paged on a Thursday and be in the Soviet Union on Friday, shooting news,” Amy said.
After the accident that ended her career, the creative fire her parents had stoked in their daughter continued, and today she is a gifted jewelry-maker who for the last seven years has also become her father’s primary caretaker. As with most families, speaking with three different family members results in three, entirely distinct and authentic stories of remembrance.
“The thing was that Rhoda and I were both so busy, we didn’t have time to give them attention,” Stu says. “Basically, we just encouraged them in whatever field they decided to pursue.
“We let them know we were behind them no matter what. The main thing was that we didn’t interfere in their lives. I was teaching six days a week, then I was in plays and movies in San Francisco at night. Somehow, they managed to turn out very well.”
His adult children beg to differ, insisting he was highly involved but never over-reactive or in a rush to offer advice, which doesn’t mean he was hands-off. Once, sensing his youngest son’s unhappiness, he ordered catalogues to be sent from ArtCenter College of Design, a private art university in Pasadena.
“I opened that catalogue and almost cried,” Dan recalls. “It described what I always dreamed of doing. You changed everything for me that day,” he says. True to form, Stu responds that “I’m glad it worked out.”
Notably, to celebrate Bop It’s 25th anniversary, Dan and his wife, Alicia Alexander, developed a special-edition Bop It Button. Proceeds from the sales benefit Lighthouse for the Blind (bit.ly/43vjFeS), the charity selected a quarter-century after blind children gravitated in droves to the tactile, largely voice/sound-centric toy.
From a slew of applicants, six voices were selected for the “bop it” and “don’t bop it” commands. Stu is paid tribute by being one of the chosen few voices. Dan is expanding the generous spirit he inherited from his parents by inviting celebrities to choose their favorite charity and voice new audio tracks for Bop It Button iterations.
In the same spirit of giving before the COVID-19 pandemic, Stu and co-performer Hansen took their show on the road to senior living facilities and community centers. Cut short for the last three years and unsure if Stu’s declining health will let them resume performing, it almost doesn’t matter.
What counts is that this one man, unknown by millions but respected, emulated and loved by his family, friends and audiences that number in the thousands, is in rehearsal, singing and giving each song everything he has.