Farewell to a Class Act
Jay Jensen

"Teacher to the Stars" Jay W. Jensen and a cast of show-biz icons star in the documentary CLASS ACT, which chronicles Jensen's 50-year career as a theater teacher and director. More than 20 years after New York producer Heather Winters and California director Sara Sackner graduated from Miami Beach Senior High School, the filmmakers tell the extraordinary story of their high school theater teacher. They also reveal another story. In the wake of his retirement from Beach High, the theater program Jay created and ran for more than 30 years no longer exists. In CLASS ACT, Sackner and Winters talk to teachers, principals, administrators, government leaders, and students, and discover that the arts have been diisappearing from America's public schools. CLASS ACT weaves Mr. Jensen's personal and professional story with the glorious past and grim future of arts education. Jay's legacy is enormous. In addition to your humble columnist, Jay alumni include a Who's Who of the Arts, Hollywood, and New York.


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The Show Must Go On

It’s Monday, March 5th, exactly 6 p.m. in Miami, an hour earlier here in Austin, and the curtain has just gone up at the University of Miami’s Ring Theater for Jay Jensen’s memorial service.

I’m dressed appropriately.

I’m sitting at my typewriter, and wearing a top hat bearing Jay’s photo, the top hat I wore in a song and dance number we did as a tribute to Jay at the theater reunion back in 2001.  A line of women kicking their heels in top hats and black T-shirts with “Jay” emblazoned on the front in gold.

Oh, yes, we wore pants, too.

I had to throw that in because Jay was known for theatrically pushing the envelope, and nobody would be too surprised if a bunch of his former students paid tribute without pants.  Underwear, yes, but pants could’ve been optional.

Oh, good, a few laughs.  Okay, cheap laughs because they’re about not wearing any pants.  But, I was worried that my sense of humor might abandon me as I write this.  Jay wouldn’t have liked that.  Actually, nobody would like that because this is a humor column.

But, the problem is that I’m not feeling very funny right now.

Theater director and educator extraordinaire Jay Jensen died on February 17, 2007, just a few weeks ago as I write this.

For more than 50 years, Jay was a mentor to so many people, including me.  And through those people, Jay ended up indirectly affecting the lives of millions of others.  I can guarantee that you’re one of them.  Even if you didn’t know Jay or have never heard of him, it’s simply not possible that you’ve escaped his influence.

He taught and mentored those who went on to become actors, singers, musicians, and dancers; directors and producers; writers, editors and agents; theater, film, TV, music, entertainment, arts, and publishing executives; attorneys, doctors, therapists, and scientists; politicians, philanthropists, and educators; business and industry leaders…

If you called Jay’s house in recent years, his answering machine recording let you know that you’d phoned “The Teacher to the Stars.”  To drop just a few of the many names: publishing “star” Mitch Kaplan, the visionary owner of Miami’s and one of the country’s best independent bookstores, Books & Books, and former president of the American Booksellers Association (ABA); Tony Award-winning playwright Mark Medoff (Children of a Lesser God, which was made into the film that brought Marlee Matlin her Best Actress Oscar), who’s also written many successful films; film director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, The Family Man, and others); sportscaster Roy Firestone; songwriter Desmond Child; and actor Andy Garcia.

The recent documentary, Class Act, which has been making the rounds of film festivals, focuses on Jay Jensen’s profound influence as a theater director and educator, and highlights his list of accomplishments, which is as long as the 75 years he spent educating, entertaining, inspiring, and amusing the planet.

I always knew that one day I’d write this, but I was hoping that day wouldn’t come for another decade or two.  Oh, well, as Jay taught me beginning back in the 1970s when I was a teenager, the show must go on.

That lesson has been essential to surviving and thriving as a journalist, writer, author, and editor.  And it’s what I try so hard to pass on to those I’m privileged to mentor: No matter what, the show must go on.

Those aren’t just empty words.  That motto means you don’t give up, you keep going even if you don’t really want to, you leap over obstacles or find clever ways around them, you “never let the bastards grind you down,” you do your job with the highest professional standards, you push the creative envelope, you reach inside and find the strength…and it’s there.  Why?  Because the show must go on, of course.  It’s an all-purpose, full-circle philosophy.

I graduated from Miami Beach Senior High in 1974 – Andy Garcia was in my class and Mitch Kaplan and Roy Firestone were a few years ahead of me – and for many years before, and about a decade after, Beach High was really something special.  Strong academically, it gained national attention most for its performing arts, literary, and debate programs.  It resembled the New York performing arts high school that the movie Fame was based on.

In high school, I “majored” in theater, music, and writing.  For more than 30 years, beginning in 1959, Jay Jensen ran the theater department.  He taught, he directed, he did everything.  He also directed Miami Beach Community Theater and Miami Beach Children’s Theater.  We put on more plays and musicals in each year-long season than most professional theaters did.  And we put them on just as professionally.

A professional actor turned educator and director, Jay treated us as professionals, as adults, and he brought in professional actors, music directors, dialogue coaches, choreographers, and set designers to work with us so we could learn from them.  He also taught us that the arts were a business.  He featured professionals in many of our shows, knowing that would increase ticket sales.  Our shows were almost always sold out.  And we were covered and reviewed by the local press.  Jay treated the high school and Community Theater shows as if they were Broadway shows and their quality reflected that.  Years later, as a theater critic, I wished some of the professional shows I had to review were as well done as my high school shows had been years earlier.

Jay set very high standards and expected us to live up to them.  He inspired, he encouraged, he brought out the best in everyone, but he was also an expert at tough love.  When he wasn’t pleased during a rehearsal, he’d whine, “I’ve had this shit up to here!” and he’d shout when he had to (though never abusively, and never insulting or degrading anyone), which wasn’t often since everyone wanted to live up to his high standards.  They’d become our high standards, too.  We wanted to be taken seriously, professionally.  We loved what we were doing as much as Jay loved what he was doing.  We had as much passion for it as he did.  We practically lived at the theater.  Jay saw us a whole lot more than our families did.  And our families knew we were in good hands.  In fact, many of the kids turned to Jay with their problems, and many parents were grateful for his common sense (and often irreverent) feedback.

We loved Jay and we knew that Jay loved us.

We never let him down because that would be letting <I>ourselves</i> down, and we certainly didn’t want to do that.  Besides, we were having the time of our lives.  It was fun.  Boy, was it fun.  It was the most creative freedom you could imagine.  When we were great, Jay let us know we were great.  He never withheld that.  And when we needed to be better, he let us know that, too, usually with some on-target, smart-ass remark, and we got better.  He turned us out into the world as highly motivated, dedicated, passionate creative artists who also understood that the creative arts were tough businesses.

Whether it was Miami, New York or Hollywood, Jay knew everyone and everyone knew him.  He took us to every theater in town where we saw dozens of professional plays and musicals every year, including Broadway touring companies, then met with the actors for Q&A sessions.  We also worked as ushers so we could see the shows over and over again.  Through Jay’s contacts, we got part-time jobs and summer jobs both performing and behind the scenes in theater and film.  It was common to see famous actors roaming the halls at Beach High on their way to speak to one of Jay’s classes.

During my senior year, the movie Lenny – about the late, ground-breaking comedian Lenny Bruce, and starring Dustin Hoffman – was filming in Miami, and Jay knew one of the casting directors, which led a handful of us to get nicely visible roles as extras.  We were in numerous scenes, and all on the screen long enough to be seen and recognized.  Look – there’s Abbe, there’s Tony, there’s Marla, there’s <I>me</i>!  Bob Fosse directed the film and the many days I spent on set were an education in itself.  But, that’s another story for another column.

In the early 1990s, after he officially retired from Beach High, Jay continued to teach in other programs and direct, and remained as busy as ever.  As a Tennessee Williams scholar, he traveled the world giving lectures on the playwright’s work, he worked with the University of Miami and a school in Mexico City, he taught privately, he kept going and going.

He’s always lived in a small condo and was infamous for never spending a penny.  And then we all found out why: he’d been squirreling away his teacher’s salary all those years, wisely investing it.  The outcome was his $3 million-dollar donation to the University of Miami where Jay’s and his parents’ names are not immortalized in the theater and art departments.  People magazine ran a feature story.

Jay never married and never had children, so we were all his children.  For decades and decades after we’d been his students, more than 30 years-worth of us stayed in touch with him.  We saw him or spoke to him regularly.  He came to the weddings, he came to the funerals.  He was part of the family.  Many families.  Many of us even ended up professionally networking with him in one way or another.  I just finished editing a book by an author who was sent to me by Jay.  Ten years ago, I collaborated with an author on a book that mentioned the work of a number of doctors, including one in Miami.  When the author sent me a bio of that doctor, Bernie, I noticed that Bernie had gone to Beach High and had graduated a few years before I did.  Small world.  I called him.

“So, what did you do at Beach High?” Bernie asked.  That was like asking what you majored in in college because Beach High was, back then, known for being a school where you did something, you “majored” in something.

“Theater, music, and writing,” I said.

“Me, too!” Bernie gushed.  “I was in theater, too!  So you were with Jay, too?”

We were part of the Jay family, so Bernie automatically felt like he’d known me forever.

Like so many of the rest of us, Bernie had remained close to Jay.  When Jay was diagnosed with cancer this past summer, his prognosis wasn’t good.  First, the doctors didn’t think he’d make it to Thanksgiving.  But, he did, and I spoke to him while he was in the hospital.  He had a room full of people, mostly former students, some of them now old enough to be grandparents.  Bernie was there, too, so I asked Jay to put him on the phone.

“Bernie, you’re a doctor, so be straight with me,” I said.  “Speak cryptically if you have to so no one in the room knows what we’re talking about.  What do you think – how long does Jay have?  Does he have days?  Weeks?”

“The second one,” Bernie said.

“You mean he could make it to Christmas?”

“Yeah, he could,” Bernie said, hopefully.

Jay made it to Christmas.  He was in and out of the hospital a number of times during the fall and winter.  I spoke to him about once a week or so.  Most of the time he sounded weak, but his mind was very clear and his kick-ass sense of humor intact.  When I did a three-way call so that Marla, also one of his former students, could join in our conversation from New York, Jay giggled weakly from his hospital bed, “Oh, my God, we’re having a three-way?”

In one of my conversations with Jay while he was in the hospital, he shocked me when he whispered, “I’m scared.”

I’d never thought I’d ever hear those words coming out of Jay Jensen’s mouth.  But, this wasn’t Jay, the teacher, director, and mentor talking.  This was Jay, the friend who was dying.  I started to cry, but I didn’t want him to hear me crying.  We were his kids, and each of us was helping to take care of him in one way or another.  From Diana, now in her mid-50s, whom he’d put in charge of all of his affairs, to the former student, now in her early 30s, who dropped by his home to make him dinner.  Jay was never alone.  His home and his hospital room were filled with former students.  His phone never stopped ringing.  We called from down the street, across the country, and around the world.  And we called each other, keeping everyone up-to-date on Jay’s condition.  After that conversation when Jay told me he was scared, I called Jerry, who’d graduated a year before me and had been working as an actor and living in Los Angeles.  He’d just seen Jay when Jay had come for an L.A. visit shortly before he entered the hospital around Thanksgiving.

The minute I heard Jerry’s voice, I started crying.  I told him that Jay told me he was scared.  I told him that he should call Jay right away.  And I told him that it was all finally hitting me – as I’m sure it was all finally hitting everyone else – that Jay was going to be leaving soon.

“I’m not ready yet,” I said to Jerry.  “I’m not ready for him to go.”

Jerry and I talked about how not a day went by when we weren’t reminded of something Jay had taught us.  Soon after, Marla and I had almost the exact conversation.

Having made it to Christmas, Jay laughed to me on the phone, “The doctors didn’t think I’d still be here!”  And then he asked me about my cat.  He loved my cat, Jessie, and used to joke when I still lived in Miami that if I came home and found Jessie gone, I should call him because that meant he’d kidnapped her. “They tell me I won’t make it to New Year’s, but I’ll prove ‘em wrong,” he said.

He called me on New Year’s Eve from the hospital.

“I wanted to wish you a very happy and healthy New Year,” he said weakly.  And then he added, quietly, “I’m near the end.”

This time, I didn’t cry.  I was well into “The Show Must Go On” mode.

Not surprisingly, at this point, Jay rallied once again.  He came home from the hospital.  He wanted to live to see the movie Dreamgirls, and he did.  He told me a few days later how much he enjoyed it.  He was home for a few weeks.  In February, the last time we spoke, he sounded as strong as he’d sounded before he got sick.  He’d gotten his appetite back.  He was looking forward to a March trip to New York.  He was still working, teaching private students when he was home, grading papers when he was in the hospital.

On Thursday, February 15th, he’d planned to do some work, but he grew weak and was taken to the hospital.  By Friday, heavily sedated, he was no longer in pain, and was slipping into unconsciousness.

At 11 p.m. on Saturday, February 17th, with former students by his bedside, Jay Jensen, 75, went to that great theater in the sky.

 During the last 25-plus years, I’ve had more than 500 articles published.  Many of those have been in national magazines, and about very famous people.  But, the most response I’ve gotten to one of my articles wasn’t the one about a best-selling author, famous movie star, or brilliant scientist, it was to my December, 1983 Theater Notes column in South Florida Magazine when I wrote about Jay Jensen.  When that story ran, I got letters, I got phone calls, and people crawled out of the woodwork from all over the country.

In that column, I wrote:  “Jensen stressed artistic exposure, experimentation, education and hard work.  But education didn’t stop at the stage door… One night in a little theater in an old building in the Grove, we saw Mark Medoff’s The Wager.  The playwright, a Beach High graduate and Jensen alum, spoke to our acting class about playwriting.  That’s where I first heard the old adage, ‘a writer has to experience life to write about it.’  Medoff shattered the illusion of the glamour of writing and emphasized the need for awareness, dedication, imagination and an ability to analyze…”

I ended the column by writing that Jay Jensen “taught, through improvisations, how to think on your feet without being caught off guard.  ‘That’s how it is in the real world; it’s tough out there,’ he would shout.  He taught about life.  Theater was merely the vehicle.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jay Jensen changed the life of everyone who learned from him.  And that his lessons still ripple through our brains every day is a testament to the power of his mentorship and his friendship.

Jay never learned to drive.  Everyone always had to drive him everywhere.  The day before Jay’s memorial service, Bernie, the doctor, Jay’s former student, got on his boat and took Jay on his last ride.  At Jay’s request, Bernie scattered Jay’s ashes in the waters off Miami Beach.

Diana and Becky made sure that Jay’s memorial would be staged exactly as Jay had pre-directed it before he died.

Jay Jensen prepared us to go out into the world, and all these years later, we prepared him to leave it.

I love you, Jay.  You taught me well.  This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write, but you taught me that “the show must go on,” and so I made sure that it did.

* * * * *

Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, humorist, and the author of books including Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poynter, Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, The Sun-Sentinel, and The Miami Herald.

She has been a contributing writer for Independent Publisher magazine since 2003, and wrote her Much Ado About Publishing column from 2003-2012.

Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for it's entire run on WLRN in Miami and in select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction. You can find her on Twitter: @ninatypewriter.