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Benefiting MOM, Volunteering

Behind the Scenes: Giving Back Through the Gift of Story

On December 3rd and 4th, the community will take a step back in time with the Home for the Holidays’ world premiere of the radio play by Tom McLoughlin and Tony Retaino, “Young St. Nick: The Boy Who Became Santa Claus” at the Middleton Performing Arts Center to benefit Middleton Outreach Ministry (MOM).  The crowd will be jazzed with the swingin’ sounds from the Larry Busch Band; charmed by classic commercials set in the vintaged tone of our favorite Christmas songs; enchanted by a young mischievous orphan named Saint Nick as he crafts the magic of Christmas.

But what they won’t see is the man behind the curtain, co-writer Tony Reitano, and what they won’t hear is the inspiring story of actress, co-director and co-producer Leslie Esser-Reitano, the husband and wife duo and production team responsible for the play.

“I didn’t expect to be in Wisconsin,” Tony reflects. “But we came to this place in a round-about way, and it turned things in a different direction and opened up new possibilities for us.”

The husband and wife duo have extensive acting credentials ranging from stage, cabaret, recording, commercials and television that, when combined, spans half a century. But Tony and Leslie seemingly zig-zagged around each other’s lives from coast-to-coast before ever coming together. Both started their careers on the stages of New York. Then Tony headed to Los Angeles, and chronic misdiagnosed health issues repeatedly sent Leslie back to her native Middleton for recovery. While Tony was in LA, he wore many hats, including the “game show king,” a thirteen-year run as Vince the Crash Dummy in the Seat Belt Commercial campaign, TV and film actor as well as sitcom and animation writer. Leslie continued multiple acting opportunities on the West Coast, even teaching at the prestigious Musical Theatre, Pop and Opera programs at the Los Angeles High School For Performing Arts.

But their paths didn’t cross until nearly 15 years ago while they were both living in Los Angeles and working on a friend’s play. Leslie, wracked by perpetual health issues that would later be diagnosed as Lymphoma, found comfort in Tony’s immediate compassion toward her ailments.

“You know when you first start a relationship with someone, you want to put your best foot forward,” Leslie explains. “Well, I was the complete opposite. And I warned Tony, but he was just so great and considerate.”

Eventually, they married in a small intimate ceremony in Sedona amidst the red rocks, bought a house and had a daughter. Once Marguerite was born, Tony and Leslie realized they didn’t want to raise her in L.A.

“We came back to Wisconsin while visiting family and then thought, maybe we could live here. And then I went and bought a house,” Tony laughs.

“Yeah, without me. He comes back and says, ‘I bought us a house’,” Leslie laughs back. “And so here we are. Tony still says ‘we’re just trying it out,’ but we’ve been here for 10 years.”

Leslie’s involvement with MOM began five years ago when she and her theatre partner, Katrina Brunner, wanted to put on a performance with their theatre company Sycamore Street Ensemble to raise money for a local organization.

“I think the first show we maybe made $27 when it was all said and done,” Leslie recalls. “But I loved the idea of working for a local charity.”

Leslie really appreciated the work MOM did in their community, so she pitched the idea to MOM about partnering during the holidays. Not only did they like the idea of the holiday performance, they wanted to do everything they could to help.

“They said, ‘we will help produce and you just focus on the show.’ And it has been such an amazing and positive experience. Jackson Fonder [Executive Director of MOM] and the MOM staff and volunteers have given us trust to do what we know – the writing, producing and acting – and they take care of the rest.”  

Leslie, Katrina and the Sycamore Street Ensemble continued their partnership with MOM for four years. But after 2010’s performance, Tony and Leslie decided to do something new for the 2011 production of Home for the Holidays.

“We’d been doing the same performance of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ for three years and ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ last year,” Leslie explains. “It just felt like it was time that we do something new. So this year, Heartline is producing the show for the first time.”

Tony and Leslie created a production company, Heartline Productions, that gave a name to all of the work Leslie and Tony already do with writing, producing, acting, teaching and coaching, and gave a backing to the partnership with MOM.

“The ‘Heartline’ symbol means long life, luck and good health in Zuni,” Leslie notes. “It seemed like a great choice to express our love for each other and also the love we have for what we do.”

“Young St. Nick: The Boy Who Became Santa Claus” originated as a potential movie pitch that Tony and his writing partner, Tom McLoughlin, reconstructed into a radio broadcast.

“ It was like walking right from the last performance,” Leslie explains. “We had generated the idea in the winter, then starting in Spring, Tony started writing with his partner and here’s the play today.”

On December 3rd and 4th, Heartline Productions and MOM will celebrate the holidays by inviting families together to get lost in a story and to be taken on a journey.

“We’re not just doing a benefit for MOM, MOM is really doing a benefit for us,” Leslie expresses. “Tony gets to see his play come to life, we get to do what we love and give back to our community at the same time.”

The event is presented by Affiliated Communications.  To buy tickets or learn more about the event, visit middletonholidays.org.  Tickets also available at Middleton Outreach Ministry’s office at 7432 Hubbard Avenue, Middleton.

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MOM is a local non-profit organization that leads a community-wide effort to prevent homelessness and end hunger for our neighbors throughout Middleton, West Madison and Cross Plains.  Through our business partners, affiliated churches, area schools, community service clubs, and numerous individuals, we provide food, clothing, housing assistance, emergency financial assistance, and special services for seniors.  All programs are provided free of charge to neighbors in need. 

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