Multi-faceted, often working day and night, it’s a wonder James Jontz gets any sleep.
“Sometimes I don’t get very much,” admitted the man on the move who holds three jobs at South Pasadena High School, while also taking his backstage theatrical talents to a pair of community colleges and small venues around the San Gabriel Valley.
Only 45 years of age, the 1992 SPHS alum has worked 25 of those at the school he graduated from, currently serving as the performing arts instructional assistant, career technical Education (CTE) stagecraft instructor and Associated Student Body (ASB) financial clerk on campus.
What it all means is Jontz is one busy guy, teaching stage, and holding the responsibility for everything behind the scenes in the school’s two theaters. When he’s not backstage, Jontz manages the many campus club accounts – depositing funds and writing checks – as his main position with ASB.
In addition, he’s the senior class advisor at the school, working side-by-side with elected officers putting on events like the Ice-Breaker dance in the fall and the Powder Puff football game in the spring. In June, Jontz traditionally helps organize baccalaureate and the graduation breakfast and ceremony scheduled later in the afternoon. He also lends a hand to a myriad of school fundraisers that support the senior class.
On Saturday nights, just like his late father, there’s a good chance you’ll find Jontz inside the school’s gymnasium calling out numbers as hundreds gather each week for bingo, a major fundraiser organized by the SPHS Booster Club.
Jontz, however, is the happiest working in the background, behind the two stage curtains ensuring the lighting, sound, and set designs are all in good working order before productions. Throughout the school year, Jontz is also busy testing the sound, checking microphones and getting the stage ready for multiple assemblies and special events at SPHS.
“I’m part of all the craziness the audience doesn’t see,” he said, favoring his behind-the-scenes role over taking center stage. “I’m responsible for everything but the performance part.”
One of his greatest memories at SPHS was back in 2004 when he joined the school’s drama teacher in taking 15 students to Scotland to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “One of my former students, Heidi Hunt, and I had to transport, assemble, light and run a show originally put on in the little theater here at the school,” recalled Jontz. She was my best friend and we worked numerous shows together. Some I would hire her and some she would hire me. We traveled to festivals, shows and National Parks.”
Sadly, however, Hunt lost a battle to cancer in 2016. “It still hurts to this day losing Heidi at 30 years old,” said Jontz.
Away from the South Pasadena High campus, many nights and weekends are filled with assignments at Pasadena City College and Citrus Community College, where Jontz is counted on for his backstage expertise. He trains new technicians at PCC and handles lighting systems and occasional sound for organizations renting the theater.
He’s busier at Citrus College, serving as one of the stage managers responsible for setting up productions in the heavily used 1,440-seat Robert Haugh Performing Arts Center.
Between the high school, two college campuses, a 5th grade production for the local school district, and work at small theaters, including Theatre 360 and Upstage- both in Pasadena- Jontz easily finds himself involved in about a dozen or more musicals per year.
“We do a number fun productions,” Jontz said of his role with Theatre 360, noting that some actors from South Pasadena have learned their craft under Artistic/Executive Director Devin Yates, “who does amazing theatrical productions. “This year it’s part of the Disney pilot program that tests shows. We get to try them out in front of small audiences before they go in front of mass viewings.”
Monthly, Jontz tapes and broadcasts South Pasadena Board of Education meetings, streaming them live from district headquarters.
Just when you think he’s about to take a breather, Jontz might be on his way to the city’s War Memorial Building, where his construction and welding skills have come heavily into play over the past 20 years as a volunteer working on South Pasadena’s float in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade. As a member of the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee, he has served as president, vice president, secretary and fundraising chair for the organization in his years of service.
When Jontz gets the chance, he also attends South Pasadena Kiwanis Club meetings on Wednesday afternoons. Jontz was brought into the organization by his father, David, who was introduced to Kiwanis by his father, James’s grandfather, Melvin Jontz.
Whew, he never seems to slow down and is always working, except for those times he escapes town by making use of an annual pass at Disneyland.
“It’s fun,” he said of his on-the-fly, mettle-to-the-pedal lifestyle. “I like what I do.”
The feeling is mutual as the man overseeing the South Pasadena Unified School District weighed in to pay tribute to what Jontz has contributed over the years.
“The way he conducts his business is very unassuming,” said SPUSD Superintendent Geoff Yantz. “It’s done with class and care. James is one of those individuals who is everywhere, has his hands in a lot of different things and makes it all happen. A lot of times we don’t know how it happens because he’s behind-the-scenes making it happen. But it always comes off very well.”
Jontz was recently pulled every which way over two weekends, getting everything behind the curtain in order for the sellout production of “The Laramie Project,” a story of what happened in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 when Mathew Shepard, a young gay man, was savagely beaten and left to die in a hate crime that shocked the nation.
“It was really an interesting production and one of the more difficult topics we’ve ever had to do at the high school,” Jontz explained. “It was really exciting to do something of this caliber.”
A year after he graduated from South Pasadena High, Jontz began working at the school while he attended Pasadena City College and later Cal State Los Angeles, where he graduated with a theater of arts and dance degree.
“I started out working a hour a day at SPHS, and just stayed,” he said. “I was going to school at the time, just kept working more and more, got my [college] degree, my teaching credential and I’m still here today.”
Jontz figures he’s got 20-plus years ahead of him when most teachers with 25 years experience are looking at retirement. “It’s a great place to work,” he said of the high school. “I wouldn’t want to work anyplace else.”
In college, Jontz performed on stage and learned dance and vocal, but has always preferred his background role, running the rail – theatrical rigging system – changing the scenes and sets. “It wasn’t my favorite thing to do,” he said of his opportunities to act, recognizing early on that operating the fly system full of rope lines, pulleys, counterweights and related devices, enabling curtains, lights, scenery and stage effects – sometimes including people to seemingly fly – was the avenue he wanted to take.
When he looks back, Jontz has been a part of countless productions, hundreds if pressed, including everything from “Funny Girl” to “Mary Poppins.”
Organization is one of his strengths as he goes to a computer to pull out the names of all the theatre productions he’s worked on at South Pasadena High, the long list containing the names “Annie,” “Seussical: The Musical,” “Peter Pan,” are among the performances he’s contributed his time to during the past quarter century.
“No clue,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders, when asked the number of shows he’s worked on over the years. “A lot. I do so many. The only way you can do it is basically being on top of things.”
As the years pass, many young, aspiring actors have come and gone, but according to Jontz they’ve prospered in a solid learning environment in the high school’s drama department. “Most of them have really been good students,” he said. “It’s fun to work with those who are genuinely interested. We cultivate them to see how far they can go and if they want to pursue theatre in life.”
He’s also witnessed the many changes, including advances in technology and has been around long enough to witness a complete renovation of the auditorium housing the theater. “One light alone cost us $2,400, but it’s state-of-the-art, what everyone is using,” insisted Jontz, a favorite among students, who honored him with the prestigious Hartsough Award or teacher of the year in 2014. “Slowly, we’re upgrading our equipment.”
Like the plays themselves, life around theatre never seems to get dull, providing some sort of entertainment quality – even when mishaps occur.
Lines in plays are sometimes missed, contraptions designed to create a flying effect, like those used in “Peter Pan,” don’t always live up to their expectation level, but there was one night Jontz will never, ever forget as actors left out a complete scene. Yes, a complete scene – was left out of a play one night.
“At the time it happened there was absolute terror, but it was funny afterwards,” noted Jontz, talking about the play, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds,” performed on stage some 20-25 years ago.
Everyone – actors and audience members – rolled with it, not skipping a beat, as if nothing was out of place, recalled Jontz. “Oops,” he said, making light of it. “What just happened? At the end we laughed knowing there was this scene where a guy just kind of showed up for some unknown reason.”
On another occasion, Jontz had to remind those wearing harnesses during rehearsals for the play Peter Pan, “that gravity can be cruel, harsh and unforgiving” as they simulated flying, sometimes crashing into each other before perfecting their flight patterns.
The amount of faith they built, trusting the crew, remembers Jontz, “was amazing,” as actors flew through the air supported by thin wires. “We had a lot of fun with that one.”
South Pasadena has been his home since preschool, and he especially enjoys the city’s quality of life and the many friendships he’s established over the years. “I work in Glendora at Citrus College, in Pasadena at PCC and Theatre 360,” he said, talking about living in a small town most of his life. “I wouldn’t know who to talk to if I ever had a problem in those towns because they’re so big. South Pasadena is just the right size. It’s a neat place. Everybody knows everybody. If you have an issue, you know where to go, whom to talk to. I love it here.”
And, as it turns out, many, like South Pasadena High Principal Janet Anderson, are glad he does, recognizing his many contributions to the school over the years.
“James Jontz is an extremely valuable resource here at SPHS,” she said. “He brings history, having been a student here and then almost immediately joining us as an employee. He is creative, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic in support of our collective efforts to bring opportunities to students. As our stage director, ASB accountant, senior class advisor, stage production teacher, and Booster Bingo mega-volunteer, we couldn’t make things work without him!”