Phil Carlin sits in the library at Smith Village in Chicago, where he is a resident. | Ginger Brashinger~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 26, 2013 6:04AM
Phil Carlin, 85, is quite a character.
In fact, Carlin’s been quite a few characters over the last 16 years or so.
A Chicago native and current resident of Smith Village, a senior living facility in the Beverly community, Carlin is a retired Loyola University professor who discovered an untapped acting talent in 1996.
In a twist of fate worthy of any play in which he’s performed, Carlin became an actor because he returned a call he wasn’t supposed to make.
In the mid-1990s, Sandra Martin, one of Carlin’s doctoral students at Loyola University, left a phone message for Carlin asking him to return her call. A colleague of Carlin’s told Carlin it wasn’t necessary, saying he had already taken care of Martin’s request, but Carlin made the call anyway — out of courtesy.
During the conversation, Martin mentioned that she was directing a play for the Joliet Theatre Guild.
“A couple of beats and she said, ‘You’d be great as the old man.’ If I hadn’t called her ... ,” Carlin said, his words trailing off.
Although Carlin said he had second thoughts about auditioning because of his real-life role as an educator (“I’m not an actor; I’m a teacher”), he decided to go for it.
“Teaching is show business,” he said.
For several years, Carlin enjoyed acting in Chicago-area community theatre while remaining a professor at Loyola University.
In 1999, Carlin retired from a long career in education which began with a teaching position in the early 1950s at Bowen High School, in Chicago, after earning his degree at Loyola via the G.I. Bill. He and his wife, Mary, raised their four children in the Beverly community as he continued his career in education.
In retirement, Carlin could give more time to his new pastime. With his children grown and his wife in Smith Village’s skilled nursing facility as an Alzheimer’s patient until her death in 2009, Carlin found acting to be just what the doctor ordered.
“The theatre is a form of therapy,” Carlin said.
For a dozen more years, Carlin continued to act in amateur productions throughout the Chicago area, finding that roles as “the old man” were plentiful with “nonequity” but “full-blown theatre companies.”
He was cast in more than 50 productions.
Carlin’s favorites are his first role in “Prelude to a Kiss” and the lead role of Norman in “On Golden Pond.”
Sadly, his ability to continue in the world of community theatre at venues such as the Beverly Arts Center and Stray Dog Theatre has pretty much disappeared, Carlin said. He was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 2012 and his driving is restricted to daytime.
Because many of the rehearsals are held in the evening, he has been unable to attend auditions and rehearsals.
“It’s a life(-changing) event,” Carlin said.
But fate intervened again and Carlin was given another opportunity to perform when Amanda Mucieri, associate executive director of Smith Village and artistic director of the Smith Village Players, approached Carlin and another resident with experience in the theatre, Sig Erber, about starting a theatre group at Smith Village.
“It was a unified approach among the three of us,” Mucieri said, “a kind of ‘Wouldn’t it be nice?’ thing. There’s so much wisdom and talent among our residents, but with those two men in particular.”
The Smith Village Players have been performing since 2010, usually several times a year.
Carlin said the productions are reviews rather than the full-length plays he has been accustomed to doing. And although Carlin said he never had trouble memorizing his roles, he realizes that is not always the case for others.
“It’s a different population,” Carlin said. “It’s fun and, of course, there’s a rule: Nobody has to memorize anything.”
Carlin said there are about 20 residents who are “regulars,” performing skits and group singing.
Being a member of the Smith Village Players helps fill the void that macular degeneration created for Carlin. An intelligent and active person, Carlin said he enjoys being part of the group and having the opportunity to continue his late-in-life passion.
His delight shows in his obvious humor when he describes one of his roles in a recent “Dancing with the Stars” review. Carlin said he was called upon to wear “pantyhose” as he danced onstage to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Flowers.”
“So you can imagine it got a few laughs,” he said with a chuckle.
Carlin said there’s more entertainment to come from the Smith Village Players, with the possibility of one-act short plays in the future, and the players will continue to present their annual Christmas show.
Between rehearsals and reviews, Carlin sometimes finds himself in demand to make other appearances. Having been a two-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who served in the final months of World War II, Carlin this year was asked to serve as grand marshal for the Beverly-area Memorial Day Parade.
And three times a week, he travels by train to Navy Pier to act as a history docent for the Chicago Line cruises.
Although Carlin will say it is “frustrating not being able to go for (parts in plays),” his life continues to be full and his memories of plays gone by are good ones.
“It was all positive,” Carlin said. “It was hard work — memorizing. That was hard, but I could do it.”