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Fred Rochlin, 78; Related His War Experiences in Monologues

June 26, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A close friend once described Fred Rochlin as the guy you would avoid in line at the post office. Shuffling into a room in sneakers and a worn cap, he had a raspy, high-pitched voice, reminiscent of Walter Brennan. If he engaged you in conversation, the first thing out of his mouth might be: "Do you believe in God?"

Rochlin supported no organized religion, but he was spiritual. He saw life as a never-ending search for meaning, which he pursued through World War II as the navigator of a bomber, then by building a successful architectural firm in Los Angeles and finally the discovery--in his eighth decade--of an improbable second career as a spellbinding monologuist.

His show, and a subsequent book, was called "Old Man in a Baseball Cap: A Memoir of World War II." It was a series of monologues about his wartime experiences, full of sexual adventures and chilling confrontations with death, that he performed at theaters around the country between 1996 and 2001.

"The monologue, about an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, has the elements of an epic: love and death, honor and betrayal, vengefulness and martyrdom, and ultimately, the fortuitousness of survival," New York Times cultural critic Bruce Weber wrote in a glowing article after seeing Rochlin in 1998 at the B Street Theater in Sacramento.

Rochlin died of leukemia Saturday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica. He was 78.

He was past 70 when he began performing, making him "maybe the oldest fledgling performance artist in the world," Weber said.

Shedding the cautiousness bred in him as one of the few Jews growing up in rural Arizona in the 1920s, he shocked family members and friends with his newfound life on stage.

He was "the artist formerly known as Dad," daughter Margy Rochlin said in a wryly affectionate portrait for National Public Radio in 1998.

The youngest of five children of Russian Jewish immigrants who ran a hardware store, Rochlin grew up outside Nogales, Ariz., speaking fluent Spanish, English and a little Yiddish.

He was an outstanding student at Nogales High School, but lost his way at the University of Arizona and was failing courses when World War II saved him from abject academic embarrassment. At the age of 19, he signed up for the Army Air Corps and was assigned to navigation school. He flew 50 combat missions over Europe and was shot down twice. He saw buddies decapitated by shrapnel and was sprayed by their blood and guts. One time he was forced to bail out over Yugoslavia and spent a month walking back to his squadron in Italy, guided by an amorous partisan named Marushka. By the war's end, he had been decorated 14 times.

After the war he enrolled at UC Berkeley, earning a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1949. He married Berkeley student Harriet Shapiro, a Hispanic studies major who later became a novelist and historian.

He apprenticed in the Los Angeles offices of architects Lloyd Wright and Charles Eames before founding Rochlin & Baran in 1952 with Berkeley classmate Ephraim Baran.

During the 34 years that he was an active partner, the firm became known as a designer of medical facilities. Among the nearly 2,000 projects he helped shepherd were the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Research Center and Northridge Hospital Medical Center. The firm also designed structures for observatories.

In 1986, when he was 63, he announced his retirement in a letter that quoted Yeats and Thoreau. "It takes the whole of a lifetime just to learn how to live it," he told his colleagues. Then he rented a small Santa Monica studio and spent the next several years designing primitive toys, collapsible shelters and small architectural projects.

Retirement wasn't altogether comfortable. During that period he would sometimes show up at his daughter's house, toolbox in hand, looking for something to fix.

In 1994, a friend suggested that he take a workshop with performance artist Spaulding Gray at Esalen Institute, the New Age outpost in Big Sur. He and Harriet were among the small group accepted.

Gray drew out each participant's life stories, which they had to present in the form of a monologue.

All the harrowing war experiences he had spent decades trying to forget came pouring out.

"I just got up there and yapped away," Rochlin recalled in the Chicago Tribune.

Back in Los Angeles, he signed up for a class in solo performance at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. He was the oldest student by three or four decades. "He came in and I honestly didn't understand what he was doing in class," said instructor Laurie Lathem. "He was a nonactor, this old man."

Then he read a story about one of his World War II experiences and it "blew everyone away," Lathem said. "Everyone was in tears. I hadn't been teaching long, but I did know that what we were hearing was very special."

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