George Mengert walked through Pace Academy’s band room toward the hall to the school’s theater. He smiled as if thinking of some private joke, then gestured toward the door of a men’s bathroom. “Dressing room,” he said.
Then he gestured toward the door of another room nearby. “Makeup room,” he said.
But once inside Pace’s 600-seat Fine Arts Center, Mengert turned reflective as he looked about at the lights and stage.
“It encloses so many memories,” he said quietly. “The ghosts of all those productions. All those voices. All those sets.”
And there have been many. Mengert, who’s 72, is retiring after 44 years heading Pace’s theater program. The school estimates he’s put on more than 128 shows since he started teaching at the school. More than 75 of those shows, he figures, were staged in this room, the theater the school built in 1991.
“A lot of my life,” he said. “A lot of hours.”
His theater groups have staged plays as different as “Inherit the Wind” and “Into the Woods,” “Arsenic and Old Lace” and Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” “The Sound of Music” and “Chicago.” He refuses to pick a favorite.
“He’s done a lot,” said Caitlin Jones, a former student who’s now Pace’s director of communications. “He’s done everything.”
Mengert’s former students plan to honor him May 23 with a special review at the school’s Fine Arts Center called “Encore 2.”
More than 50 Pace theater alumni are scheduled to take part in the review the school says will bring back performances from a variety of shows Mengent’s students have staged.
Mengert, who grew up in Sandy Springs, started his theater career as an actor. He remembers being recruited for his first role as a junior in high school because the St. Pius X Catholic High School theater group at this time didn’t have enough senior boys in it to fill the parts for the senior play.
“They needed boys,” he said. He won the lead. His senior year, he won the lead role again. “I guess I was hooked,” he said.
He worked at various theaters around metro Atlanta, including a stint at a dinner theater in Marietta, where he claims an ad-libbed line provides one of his favorite moments onstage. During a production of “The Seven Year Itch,” a cat wandered into the room, he said. “I looked at the audience and shrugged and said, ‘My animal magnetism,’” he recalled. “It brought the house down.”
Mengert began teaching at Pace just 13 years after the school opened. He had planned to teach for a year or two while wrapping up his doctorate. Instead, he stayed on.
Over four decades at the school, he’s taught English, served as the school’s director of admissions and debate coach, launched Pace’s first Advanced Placement course and was named its STAR Teacher three times, the school said. Pace said Mengert’s theater productions have won 15 Georgia High School Association One-Act region championships, 10 state championships and numerous best acting awards, according to Pace.
“Anyone who has ever attended a Pace production has walked out of the theater with that ‘wow’ feeling, fully appreciating the gift that George has for cultivating students’ talents,” Pace Academy Head of School Fred Assaf said. “The arts are central to Pace, and we owe much credit to George for setting the bar high. He has played a tremendous role in creating and growing the Pace arts’ culture.”
In the early days, when Pace’s student body and campus wasn’t much more than three buildings, staging plays did require a bit of off-stage creativity, as Mengert remembers it.
He recalls putting on plays in a portion of the school cafeteria.
The layout of the room allowed access to the stage from one side of the stage, but only a window on the other. During one production of the comedy “Harvey,” one actor was supposed to climb a ladder outside and then come in through the window. But during one performance it poured rain and the actor was drenched.
“When he came in, he was literally dripping buckets,” Mengert said.
During his first years directing Pace’s annual musical, he said, there was not room on campus to stage the elaborate productions, so they were presented wherever the school could find a space. “Back then, it wasn’t a question of ‘What are you doing next year?’ but ‘Where is it?’” In those days, the musical cast included students, faculty and alumni. A 1983 production of the musical “Oliver!” featured Mengert as Fagin, and his son, King, as Oliver Twist, Mengert said.
Mengert hopes he can remain involved in local theater after his retirement, he said.
“I like the magic,” he said. “I like seeing something come from this here” – he picked up a copy of a script from his desk – “to life. The merging of the writer’s vision with the director’s vision of how this story comes to life, that’s the fun. That’s fun.”