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Jewish Journal

A Jew from Nogales

Fred Rochlin's second career as a performance artist is more about closure than fame

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 2, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Fred Rochlin can't understand all the fuss over his monologue, "Old Man in a Baseball Cap," about his adventures during World War II.

"I'm not an actor," he insists. "I'm an old guy."

Never mind Rochlin's invitation to the renowned Louisville arts festival; his residency at the prestigious MacDowall writer's colony in New Hampshire; his rave review in the New York Times; the lucrative book deal ("Old Man in a Baseball Cap," Harper Collins, $20, due in bookstores this month).

"His success came with a rapidity that made all my struggling actor friends heartsick," Rochlin's journalist daughter, Margy, said in her public radio piece on "The Artist Formerly Known as Dad."

Rochlin's response: "I don't suffer from overconfidence. I don't know what the hell I'm doing."

If the 76-year-old retired architect is modest, his reviews have been anything but. The New York Times said his show has "the elements of an epic: love and death, honor and betrayal, vengefulness and martyrdom ... war as seen through the eyes of an innocent." His admittedly exaggerated stories are haunting, blunt, blackly funny and in Rochlin's words, "pretty raunchy."

When the unassuming senior citizen ambles onstage wearing rumpled khaki pants and a baseball cap, he introduces himself as a Jew from Nogales, Ariz., a border town. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he grew up speaking Spanish, English and Yiddish, and eating tamales along with the blintzes. Rochlin "got very patriotic" after Pearl Harbor, when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps because he was flunking out of the University of Arizona. He became a navigator because, as his drill sergeant explained, "You Hebes are good with numbers, and all a navigator is, is just a fu--in' flying accountant."

During Rochlin's first mission, his friend's head is blown off and he is covered with the man's blood, skin and bone. Later, he helps to deliver a baby hours before his unit annihilates a tiny Hungarian town that turns out to be the wrong target. The little village is "gone, finished, finito, a hole in the ground, a pile of Hungarian dust," Rochlin recalls.

In another adventure, the navigator is shot down over Yugoslavia and walks 400 kilometers back to Italy while suffering from a fractured jaw and cracked ribs. During the month-long journey, Rochlin and his guide, a partisan named Maruska, booze and bicker and nearly die after drinking poisoned creek water. Covered in vomit and diarrhea, they take turns cleaning each other. In a remote village, the "Americanski" is forced to shoot three German teen-agers who are chained like dogs under a shack. "I pulled the trigger and the gun went burp and I sawed those three boys in half," Rochlin says. "I was half numb. I saw one boy look at me and he cried, 'Mutter.' "

Some hours later, Rochlin makes love for the first time to Maruska, who has insisted that she does not want to die a virgin. The next day, he contracts crabs and gonorrhea.

Since the war, Rochlin has led a relatively quiet and privileged life. He attended Berkeley on a veteran's scholarship in the late 1940s, then moved to Los Angeles and founded an architectural firm, Rochlin & Baran, which designed St. John's Hospital and other prominent health care facilities around town. With his novelist wife, Harriet, he traveled the American West and co-authored a ground-breaking book, "Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West."

But he never forgot the war.

"I shave every morning, and I look in the mirror," he told The Journal. "I remember that in my crew of 10 guys, only two survived. And I wonder, 'Why me?' "

For years, Rochlin wrote his experiences down on scraps of paper that he stashed in a drawer. He didn't speak much about the past until 1993, when on a whim he took an Esalen seminar by the famed monologuist Spalding Gray. The septuagenarian, who had felt "a bit lost" since retiring in 1987, recited a few tales from the drawer stash and found his new calling. Fred Rochlin, the retired architect and grandfather, became Fred Rochlin, the performance artist.

The "square" senior citizen began attending "how-to" classes with tattooed and tongue-pierced artistes less than half his age. Margy Rochlin thinks her dad liked the age difference: "It made him exotic," she said in her radio piece.

But Laurie Lathem, Rochlin's teacher at Highways, wasn't initially impressed with the elderly beginner. "I was pretty skeptical," she told the New York Times. "And then he started reading these stories he had written. And it was one of those moments that everyone in the room knew it was going to go on beyond these walls. He didn't know that anyone would ever care about this stuff. A lot of my job has been convincing him that people really respond to this."

Lathem scheduled group shows to lure the reluctant senior onstage; before long, Rochlin was one of four artists selected from 200 applicants to perform at the renowned Flying Solo Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Patrons argued over the few remaining tickets to his sold-out shows. More sold-out performances ensued at prestigious theaters in La Jolla, Calif., New York and Sacramento, Calif.

After a New York Times feature story on Rochlin last year, producers and screenwriters descended on the senior citizen. Rochlin secured a high-powered New York literary agent and talked with Hollywood insiders about a film deal.

Rochlin, perhaps the oldest novice monologuist in the world, remains "dazzled" by his success. "It's just a huge adventure," he says. Of why Rochlin is motivated to reveal his most painful memories to strangers, he says, "I'm very aware that this is the last decade of my life. And there is a kind of summing up, a need for closure."

But writing the show hasn't exorcised his wartime demons. "I have a stain on my brain," he says. "I spent years trying to get over the war, but now I know I will never get over it." "Old Man in a Baseball Cap," Sept. 9, 7 p.m. at the L.A. Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St. Tickets may be available at the door on a standby basis. Information: (213) 228-7025.

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