Tina Fey back in town Saturday for a fund-raiser

In the late 1980s, Tina Fey (right) and friends at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center. The Summer Stage founder remembers her as "very funny and talented and very smart."
In the late 1980s, Tina Fey (right) and friends at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center. The Summer Stage founder remembers her as "very funny and talented and very smart."
Posted: August 16, 2014

The self-deprecating comedy whiz from Upper Darby Township probably didn't think of herself as the cool girl.

In her youthful days, Tina Fey was the theater nerd embraced by the Broadway geeks, she writes in Bossypants, her best-selling 2011 memoir.

But to Bethany Paxson, Fey was the coolest.

As a young teacher and director at the Upper Darby Summer Stage community theater program, Fey made theater so much fun that Paxson, a member of the chorus in Fey's Pippi Longstocking, was inspired to go pro.

For that, Paxson, now an actress based in Orlando, Fla., has long wanted to say thanks. She may get a chance Saturday. Fey is coming home to Delaware County.

The award-winning writer/director/actress is scheduled to return to Upper Darby and the township's Performing Arts Center to host a special 10th anniversary screening of Mean Girls, the hit movie for which Fey wrote a script loosely based on her four years at Upper Darby High School.

After the screening, Fey, 44, will talk about a showbiz resumé that includes stints as the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live, creator of the hit show 30 Rock, and host of the Golden Globes.

The postshow chat will be moderated by Damian Holbrook, of Haverford, a senior writer at TV Guide Magazine. Holbrook is an alum of Summer Stage and the inspiration for the character of Damian in Mean Girls.

The event is a fund-raiser to buy a new sound system at the theater, which will cost about $300,000. The screening is open to the public and will begin at 7:30 p.m.

The Performing Arts Center, which also serves as the high school's auditorium, is the home base of Upper Darby Summer Stage, a program that produces six children's theater shows each year, along with a larger Broadway-style production performed by teens and young adults.

More than 700 youngsters participate each summer in the theater-arts training. The facility also hosts concerts and other community programs during the year.

"A lot of our kids come from schools where it's not so cool to be the choir kid or the theater kid," said Harry Dietzler, 59, founder of Summer Stage and the program's executive director. "They get here and they meet kids just like them, and they are amazed. 'You like that movie? You listen to that kind of music?' It creates a community."

For Saturday's event, Fey will travel from New York, where she is filming The Nest, a movie about two sisters (Fey and a buddy, actress Amy Poehler) throwing one last blowout party at the childhood home their parents are preparing to sell.

Since she made it big, Fey has reached out several times to help Summer Stage, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary after the close of this season.

In 2000, Fey returned for a 25th anniversary alumni reunion, and in 2012, when budget cuts threatened the district's arts and music program, Fey enlisted her A-list pals to lobby and tweet about the importance of arts education in the township. The strategy helped restore the funding, Dietzler said.

He remembers Fey as "very funny and talented and very smart" in those Summer Stage days, but not "flashy in a way that makes you think she's going to be a star."

The woman born Elizabeth Stamatina Fey played Frenchie in Grease, taught improvisation classes, and directed children's theater productions including Hans Christian Andersen.

Fey, always in her theater uniform of T-shirts, rolled-up jeans, and high-top sneakers, "was easygoing and loved working with kids," said actor Christopher Sapienza, 46, of West Chester, who performed and taught at Summer Stage.

But there was that one year Fey was provoked to Joan Crawford-era melodramatics by a pesky cast.

"She [jokingly] banged her head on the wall and yelled, 'I can't take it anymore!' " Sapienza said.

Sapienza, Fey, and several Summer Stage friends helped create the Harry Awards (named for Dietzler) to honor members of the theater program - and to roast them. This year's awards were held Thursday.

On Saturday, Fey and Holbrook will talk Mean Girls.

"When Tina told me she was putting me in her movie, I said, 'Do I have good lines?' She said, 'Don't worry, you have great lines,' " said Holbrook, 45.

Paxson, who is working at the theater this summer as a choreographer, will be there. She will attempt to shake the hand of the woman who directed Pippi Longstocking in 1992.

Paxson has tried before:

In Chicago, when Paxson was studying improvisation at a well-known training program and Fey was scheduled to visit (Fey was pregnant and canceled), and in Los Angeles, when Paxson was working on the production staff of the Emmy Awards (Fey was swamped by crowds at the after-party and Paxson couldn't get near her).

On Saturday, Paxson will try again for a meeting she describes as "Great, I can see Tina again. She won't know who I am, but maybe I'll see her and be able to say thank you."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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