Larry Heimgartner becomes a little emotional when remembering his good friend Bob Howard from their early days in Lewiston and later at Lewis-Clark State College in the 1960s.
It’s understandable though because Heimgartner is good with bringing out emotions, especially pulling at the emotional strings of his theater audiences, which he has been doing for years.
Heimgartner, a 1970 graduate of LCSC, has spent the past 45 years as an accomplished writer, director and producer of theater works that deal with tough social and economic issues both in the United State and abroad. His work – along with his generosity – has been lauded by many.
He served as a professor and chair of the Theater Department at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington, Calif., for more than 40 years where his work was even honored by the California Legislature. After his retirement in 2010, he was an adjunct professor at the college and continued to take his works abroad.
Before one such trip to Scotland last fall, Heimgartner and his wife, Debbie, ventured to Lewiston for the first time in a while. Larry had a 1965 class reunion at Lewiston High that he attended, but he also wanted to honor his old friend, Bob, who passed away a few years ago.
“Our front doors were about 100 feet apart growing up and then we hung out later after he served in the Vietnam War,” Heimgartner said. “He and I used to have lots of discussions about that war and life in general. He was a great guy.”
To honor his friend, Heimgartner sponsored to have a tree planted on the east side of the Administration Building on the LCSC campus and also a bench to sit on.
“On a hot summer day in July, people can sit under this tree and ponder things,” Heimgartner says. “For me, it’s a chance to think about Bob and honor his memory. This was a beautiful valley to grow up in and LCSC was a great place for me. I have a lot of fond memories here.”
Heimgartner earned his degree in Theater and English at LCSC. He served as Student Body President for a year and also was named the Outstanding Student of the Year when he graduated.
“I spent a lot of time in the presence of Don Johnson, John Nydinger, Steve Evans and John Barker, who all gave this youngster lots of attention,” Heimgartner says. “We had fun both in and out of the classroom. Every week we’d have a potluck dinner and just get together.”
Heimgartner actually started college at the University of Idaho, but spent summers fighting fires. After a big fire in the China Creek area in 1968, Heimgartner got back a few days late for the semester and Idaho denied him admission. So he enrolled at LCSC and one of the first classes he signed up for was taught by Nydinger and featured the 1882 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen “An Enemy of the People.” That hooked Heimgartner.
“John was a great guy and very inspirational,” Heimgartner said. “He let me help with directing and I enjoyed directing and writing more than acting so that’s what led me down my path.”
Upon graduation, Heimgartner taught high school for a year outside of Los Angeles before he accepted a position a L.A. Harbor.
He taught a variety of theater classes at the college and is even responsible for getting an Emmy winning music group back together, albeit for one play. In 1993, Heimgartner discovered he had Jeannette Hawes as a student. Hawes is one of three sisters that formed the 1970s pop group The Emotions. The trio won a Grammy in 1978 for Best Song of the Year for “Best of My Love.”
Despite the fame, the group stopped performing in 1985 following the death of their manager and father. With Hawes as a student, Heimgartner learned about the family and then helped Hawes write an autobiographical musical, “Bigger Than Bubblegum”, which the sisters performed at the college. The musical followed their trials and tribulations, which became a theme for many of Heimgartner’s works.
Over the course of his tenure at Harbor College he wrote, produced and directed many original theatrical productions, including the one man show “Abraham Lincoln”; the Broadway musical “Grab the Ring”; and a musical adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.”
He also wrote a variety of plays that had a moral message for children. He took those plays around the Los Angeles area and that helped earn him the Eugene Pimentel Award for Teaching Excellence.
Heimgartner also has consorted with his wife on a number of plays that covered touchy social topics, such as AIDs and disease. They have taken these plays on the road to parts of the U.S. and Europe, and he has conducted study programs in Europe through a cooperative exchange program with England's Barnsley College.
“I’ve written several full-length musicals, one Broadway play, 10 children’s theater plays and a few other things,” he says.
Heimgartner also wrote several plays on wars, including one about Chief Joseph and the War of 1877, which was performed in Europe last fall.
He also wrote a play on Jose Gutierrez, one of the first United State soldiers to be killed in Iraq in 2003. The play focused on Gutierrez being born in Guatemala and his battles to become a U.S. citizen.
“I want to educate and engage the people who are watching my plays,” Heimgartner says. “It’s something I learned in college at Lewis-Clark State that I’ve always carried with me. You want to challenge your audience.”