Jack J. Bennett was in his happy place – on stage – the evening of April 22, 2022. It was the second weekend of Young Stars Theatre’s run of “The Music Man” and he was having the time of his life performing his dream role of Harold Hill. As co-artistic director, owner, producer and literally “Jack of all trades” for the local youth theatre company, he wore every hat imaginable and so when asked on opening night the previous weekend if he was having fun, he replied with a big smile, “yeah, I am. And now that it’s up and running, I can really enjoy it.” But sadly, after Friday’s performance, with his mother in the audience, Jack passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. The cast, his family and friends, and our theatre community has suffered a profound loss.
His wife and co-director of YST, Gloria Bennett, said, “I am devastated but also so very grateful for the 25 years and 4 months that I had him by my side. First as a cast mate, then a friend, then as a husband for almost 20 years. My heart is so broken but also so very, very full from all of the love and support that our friends, family, and this theatre community is surrounding me and his step daughter with.”
Jack became stepdad to Gloria’s daughter Miranda Miller in 2002 and she calls him “the best stepdad I could have asked for.” She musically directed his last production of “The Music Man” as well as starred alongside him. “I’m so glad we got to be on stage together one last time in a show we both had on our bucket lists. I miss you.”
Jack hailed from Missouri, went to school in Wisconsin and met his wife and partner in all things, Gloria, when they worked together in theatre in Jacksonville, Florida. This is where Young Stars Theatre was born and Jack and Gloria began what would turn into 25 years of teaching children and producing hundreds of shows. In 2005, they landed in North Hollywood where they worked for ten years, all the while searching for a permanent theatre to call home. Upon finding that home in 2015 at South Pasadena’s Fremont Centre Theatre, Jack said, “we fell in love!” We interviewed Jack in 2017 about what set YST apart to which he said, “yes, our focus is in creating great performers but our main concern is that these kids walk out of here being better people. If they don’t become better performers or never act again, that’s fine. We’re more interested in creating good people than good performers.”
Jack was a performer his entire life, beginning at 5 years old, eventually studying theatre in college and working as a professional actor and stand-up comedian. He continued to work as an actor while running his passion project, Young Stars Theatre. Speaking with those who knew Jack, it is clear that he was admired and beloved – his reach and influence is untold. Jack’s longtime friend and college roommate, Jerry Sardina, had this to say, “Jack had a gift and he made sure he spent every minute sharing that gift with everyone. There is no doubt in my mind that Jack has spent more time sharing his gift with others than most people who may live 30 years beyond him, and for that I love him.”
Fremont Centre Theatre owners James and Lissa Reynolds offered this remembrance: “Jack Bennett was a big man. His capacity for work with “Young Stars Theatre”, his commitment to his young actors, and his love for his partner and wife, Gloria, all found space in this caring man’s heart. People instantly took to Jack and they were rewarded with an inspiring smile that translated to sincerity. His work in this world will be taken to the future by the many young boys and girls he dedicated his life to.”
Liz Kelly Barone was playing Marian Paroo opposite Jack in “The Music Man”, and tells us it was her dream role and a gift to be able to share the stage with him. “As an actor, when you have a scene partner that gives so much of their own self over to their character, it elevates your performance. That was the type of actor he was and this is just one small example of how Jack elevated everyone around him,” she says emphatically. “I keep thinking of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Clarence the angel says, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” I am in awe of how many lives are impacted by this loss.”
“Jack made me feel confident – he was so funny and caring. If I made a mistake and I was sad, he made me feel better,” says 11 year old Riley Barone, who played Winthrop and had been studying with Jack for several years. “Every time I exited after singing “Gary Indiana” he said something like “Nailed it!” and he would always give me a high-five. He was an amazing person. He will always be our Music Man.” Older brother Hudson Barone echoes that sentiment saying “I am forever grateful to Jack – without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t be at LACHSA. I wouldn’t have the self-confidence I have now. It’s truly difficult to even imagine what my life will be like without him. I looked up to him dearly and performing with him has always been such a joy. I remember the amount of fun we had in Sweeney Todd. Now every time I hear music from Sweeney Todd, I will think of the light he brought to the world and the twinkles in his eyes when he knew we had a good performance.”
News spread very fast and condolences, messages, photos and stories flooded in. Longtime YST member Jack Wisinski said, “I lost a mentor. He helped make me who I am – my life wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t known Jack Bennett.” Ava Broneer studied with both Jack and Gloria for over 9 years beginning with the starring role in “Annie” when she was just 8 years old. She calls Jack her “theatre dad” and says, “Jack believed in me from the very first show I did with YST and I’ll always be grateful for the confidence he gave me as a performer as well as a person. I’ll forever miss his funny song he would sing every time he saw me and the happiness I’d feel every time he’d say he was proud of me.”
Ava’s Dad, Eric, explains,“Jack had so much passion for working with children. Watching them grow and improve their skills brought him so much joy in his life. How do we know this? Nobody runs a non-profit children’s theatre for the money or to live a lavish lifestyle. Anyone who knew Jack could tell he did it for the pure joy of working with children. He wanted to teach them and help them learn and develop their skills so they could be their best at something they were passionate about.”
Tami McGovern echoes that sentiment, “He was like family to our daughter and inspired her with his passion and humor.” Daughter Amelia says Jack always enthusiastically greeted her with the nickname he gave her, “McGeeee!!” She goes on to say, “Jack was one of the most kindhearted and fun teachers I’ve ever had. All of the kids loved him for his empathetic and kindhearted nature.”
“He really saw our kids and was an integral part of their development,” said YST parent Bridget Pudi. “ He so loved all the kids and was able to bring out the best in them. He was doing what he loved and it was palpable. I’m forever grateful my children had Jack in their lives for the time they did.”
For the Farleys, YST is a family affair. Both Mom, Jennifer, and Dad, John, were in “Music Man” and, along with their children Harrison, Rowan and Crosby, had been in several shows through the years. “Jack was a mentor, a friend, a motivator, a pontificator, a teacher, a storyteller, a dog lover, a loving husband and father, a creator, a builder, an actor, a singer, a techie and a visionary! He and Gloria helped to shape our children’s lives at Young Stars Theatre,” says Jennifer. “We still had 7 shows of Music Man to perform with him as Harold Hill. You are and always will be our Music Man, Jack. Rest In Peace dear friend. Heaven is lucky to have you! Break a leg on your new stage!”
“Jack was a great mentor, person, and an inspiration to everyone he worked with,” says Harrison Farley. “He was always a very funny, kind, hard worker who worked very well with children and made sure that every child went home feeling happy. He made me want to be a better person.” Rowan Farley echoes her brother, “Jack always brightened my day with silliness and laughter. The last thing he said to me was “It’s really nice to see you smile because during quarantine we didn’t see a lot of that and it really brightens my day”. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately and how much he helped me to smile again. Words can’t describe how much I miss him and wish I could talk to him at least one last time.”
Annie Sawran, another longtime student of Jack’s, tells us she performed in every show during the pandemic. Bennett quickly pivoted during the pandemic to offer virtually all of their classes online and even managed to mount full, live productions.“YST is my 2nd home,” she says, “what I loved most about Jack is that he made you feel special and that you belonged no matter your age or what size part you had. We always support one another because of the environment he created.”
The Karnani siblings came to YST just a year ago but in that time, Jack came to mean so much to them as an inspirational mentor. Dhiren, age 9, says, “the YST community will remember him for the rest of their lives. Thank you for having such a large impact on our lives, Jack”. Younger sister, Millie (7) adds, “Jack had a beautiful heart. He always told me to never give up on anything that I want. I will always remember that. Jack, the YST community and I will never give up on theatre.”
YST parent, Shannon Porter, recounts when her youngest (Desmond) first “auditioned” for Jack when he was in pre-school – “Jack had him show him his crazy dance moves, just smiled and said he would do great. Jack connected with each kid and truly believed in them. The kids have grown up there. The YST community is family and Jack is forever in our hearts.” Desmond recounts that he first met Jack when he called him up on stage to read a raffle ticket in his sister’s show. He was hooked and started doing plays himself and says, “Jack always cheered me on. I miss him a ton.” 11 year old sister Adeline says “Jack’s kind and friendly nature made him adored by everyone. I will never forget how he taught me and from now on, when I act, I know there is someone watching over me, cheering me on. He gave me this passion – the same passion he had. So I’m going to carry it on, show by show, song by song, line by line, word by word – for Jack.”
Mirai Booth-Ong worked closely with Bennett for many years – he cast her in her first leading role with many more to follow. She choreographed dozens of shows for YST and says it meant the world to her when he entrusted her with directing him in one of his dream roles, Sweeney Todd. She tells us, “We spent Christmases and birthdays together. We fought, laughed, and learned from each other. I learned how to teach kids by watching him with kids. He was a natural, and brought out the best in each kid who crossed his stage. He did what he loved literally until the very end.”
On April 29, Gloria staged “Jack J. Bennett’s Final Curtain Call” and it was a celebration worthy of this man – full of really funny stories, beautiful singing and music followed by a seemingly endless line of young people who felt compelled to share a thought or story of how Jack impacted their lives. He would have loved it – especially the funny parts.
“Now we will work as a community to elevate Gloria, Miranda, and Young Stars Theater in his honor,” says Liz Kelly Barone. “This theater company and community will strive to make him proud and surround his family and theater family with the love and support that they will need to get through this tragedy. We will all grieve together and work to make YST everything Jack and Gloria envisioned.”
As I think anyone who knew Jack would agree, although he would not have wanted to leave this soon… the way he left – performing a dream role on stage surrounded by the singing and laughter of the young people he taught and directed every day – is exactly the way Jack would have wanted it. And he’s probably smiling about that right about now.
To donate to the Young Stars Theatre | Jack Bennett Legacy Fund visit gofundme.com/f/young-stars-theatre-jack-bennett-legacy-fund