Living - March 10, 2006
Legend lives on
Al Gentile Theater honors Monte Vista High School's first drama teacher
by B. Lynn Goodwin
Almost every weekend, and many weeknights, too, folks flock into the Al Gentile Theater at Monte Vista High School for a performance. They may wonder: "Who is - or was - Al Gentile?"
Al Gentile was the first drama teacher at Monte Vista High School, when it opened in 1965. Although he passed away in 2002, he is well remembered in Danville and the high school community.
"He loved education. He loved kids," said Vicki Stadelhofer, Monte Vista's current drama teacher.
Al Gentile was born in 1917 in the Bronx to Italian immigrant parents and as a young man worked as an extra in the New York operas. That may be where his love of theater and history began.
In the late 1930s, Gentile joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and during World War II, he worked as a sergeant major in a U.S. Army Supply Group. He studied on the GI Bill to be a teacher and began his teaching career in the San Ramon Valley School District in 1955.
At San Ramon Valley High, he taught English and history as well as drama and his classroom was next to that of another history teacher, Steve Marshall. A folding wall separated the rooms, and they used to joke about the fact that "the back of Al's class heard my lectures and the back of my class heard Al's lectures," Steve Marshall recalled.
Their friendship extended beyond their work. Gentile was Marshall's godfather when he converted to Catholicism as an adult. A big part of Marshall's attraction to the church was "Al's wonderful voice" when he read as a lector at St. Isadore's Church in Danville. Marshall followed in his footsteps, becoming a lector at St. Isadore's. He continues in that position today at Good Shepard Church in Pittsburg.
The Rev. Daniel Cardelli, who retired last year after 27 years as pastor from St. Isadore's Church, remembers that Gentile was quite active in the church and was the founding president of the Italian Catholic Federation at St. Isadore's. "Though Al is gone, the organization is still thriving," Cardelli said.
Gentile was also a member of the Knights of Columbus. "Al was concerned about his students, his parish and the community," Cardelli said. "He never had a bad word for anybody."
After Monte Vista High School opened but before its theater was built, Gentile would direct plays in the library, in a pod of four classrooms or in the gym. Shows with large casts like "The Man Who Came To Dinner," "You Can't Take It With You," and "The Night of January Sixteenth" gave many students a chance to perform. Later he helped design the original theater-in-the-round at Monte Vista and was the first director in that space.
Though he retired from teaching in 1979, Gentile stayed in touch with both students and faculty. He often came back to substitute teach.
"He always came to the Thanksgiving luncheon and talked to my classes every year," said Stadelhofer. "He talked all about when Monte Vista was first built and how he designed the theater and how he loved drama and about the plays he put on here."
In addition, he attended the Eugene O'Neill Foundation's Student Days at Tao House for several years, allowing him to become closer to the students in the drama club.
In 1991, former drama teacher Barbara Abbott pointed out that no one had ever actually dedicated the theater to him. Stadelhofer took that news to her drama club and as a club project they said, "Let's dedicate the theater to Al." Under Stadelhofer's direction, they made their dedication on the closing night of "Death Takes a Holiday," which they performed in 1991.
"That Friday night after the show, everybody sat down and we presented him with the plaque and his picture. We read the dedication on the plaque to him. His wife and children were there," Stadelhofer said. "Before the theater was remodeled, that picture and the plaque were in the entryway." The plaque now hangs in the school's rehearsal room.
"Public education is the hope and ambition of America," are the words of Gentile that are engraved on the plaque. It also reads: "His ability to pass on his own love for education to the young people whose lives he touched has made him a legend."
Year after year, new students ask about the plaque and the man behind it, which gives Stadelhofer a reason to tell them the history of the theater.
His most outstanding talent was his voice, his lectures, and the way he talked, Steve Marshall recalled. "He loved teaching English."
Al Gentile died in Southern California at the end of June 2002. He had been in failing health and moved there to be closer to his grown children.
He had a talent for connecting with his students. He often wrote about them in his column for the San Ramon Valley Times, which ran for nearly 20 years. He is remembered fondly throughout the San Ramon Valley as a man who gave generously to the young people growing up here.