Peter Grego flips hotdogs and burgers on the large grill outside Nordhoff Hall. Laughing and joking with the crowd of staff and students awaiting their lunch, Grego’s informal demeanor may seem atypical of a department chair. In a bright red apron which reads “Caffe Grego,” a chef’s hat and sunglasses, he doesn’t look like one.
A seasoned veteran of the stage, Grego knows how to dress the part, and the CSUN theatre department’s semester kick-off barbecue is no exception.
Grego has taught and directed theater both across the United States and internationally. His work has won awards including the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award for outstanding direction.
Grego served as CSUN theatre department chair for six years. Before that he taught acting and directing, but this fall he will close the curtain on his final act as chair.
After 26 years at CSUN, Grego entered the CSU’s Faculty Early Retirement Program. Although he says he will return to CSUN for four additional future semesters, this marks his last as department chair.
As a graduate student who teaches in the department, Jesse Bethune has worked with Grego both theatrically and professionally.
“He’s going to be dearly missed,” Bethune said.
According to those who know him, Grego’s best role has been that of friend and mentor.
“As a director, he allows his actors to create their own characters without forcing thoughts on you,” Bethune said. “As a boss, he’s wonderful and down-to-earth. He tells stories and cracks jokes. He’s not stuffy.”
Despite his now distinguished theatrical resume, Grego hadn’t always intended to direct.
“I went to a private boys’ high school in Pittsburgh and I didn’t think theater was anything people could really do for a living. They were programming us all to be doctors and lawyers and executives,” Grego said.
Although he dabbled in theater through high school and college, Grego spent his first college years preparing to teach English. It wasn’t until a professor approached him that Grego said he truly considered theater as a career goal.
“One of my professors said to me, ‘Who are you kidding? You should really be in a conservatory,’ and I said ‘Oh yeah, in my dreams,’” he said.
That professor got him an audition for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a prestigious theater training school. Grego was accepted as a director and soon earned his MFA.
Grego said he never thought he would teach theater. However, the summer after graduation, he began directing near Pennsylvania State University. When his shows did better than the school’s, they offered him a job, he said.
“I thought, I’ll try this for a little while,” Grego said laughing. “That was in 1973.”
In 1975, Grego recalled starring in his only professional acting role, as the first professional mascot in major league baseball.
According to Grego, the managers of the Pittsburgh Pirates were having a problem relating to their fans. Although they had used all kinds of sports consultants, they still didn’t have a solution. Pirates’ managers contacted Carnegie Mellon for help understanding audiences.
Grego said the dean referred them to him. After attending a game, he spotted the problem immediately, he said.
At the time, Pittsburgh was still predominantly made up of middle class, blue collar workers of European descent, said Grego. The Pirates were bringing in Central American and black players, thus disengaging from their fan base.
“I said, ‘Can you re-cast?’” said Grego. “They said, ‘It’s called a draft, Peter. And no.”
Unable to figure out a
way for the players to interact more with the fans, the team decided on a mascot, Grego said.
Although Grego initially refused a request that he play the mascot, the lure of good pay convinced him to try it, he said.
Grego devised a pirate costume, which he said made him look like Errol Flynn.
Grego added that he didn’t know what to do in front of a crowd so much larger than he was accustomed, but he ran out to the mound and improvised.
“I had the pitcher kneel down and I dubbed him with my fake sword,” Grego said. “He won the game.”
Grego’s mascot pioneering was a success, he said.
In 1976, Grego went to the Florida School of the Arts to start an acting program. Two years later, he started a new theater program at CSU Bakersfield. Six years after that, Grego re-located again, to his present home at CSUN.
“When I came to Northridge, they were looking for revitalization. I didn’t know by the end, we’d be building another building,” Grego said, reflecting on his career at CSUN.
Grego hired Garry Lennon into the CSUN theatre department 12 years ago.
“He is gifted in casting people,” Lennon said. “He knows where to put people in a show, in spots they’re right for, even though they may not know it yet. He has a great way of talking about his plays and making them more relatable and relevant to the students.”
Grego said what he’ll miss the most about CSUN is the people.
“I was surprised, with an ego as big as mine, how it could turn into being about the faculty and the students and the staff as opposed to being about what I am going to do next,” Grego said. “This has really been a dream job.”