It started as a family affair, as it has for so many families involved with Fort Wayne Ballet.
Jim and Jeannette Schmidt's oldest daughter, Jessamyn, had been taking lessons at Fort Wayne Ballet. In the late 1980s, she was cast as a “party child” in that year's production of “The Nutcracker,” so her parents volunteered to play “party parents” in the performance.
Jim went on to play the grandfather for a few years. But since 1995, with the exception of one year, he has played the mysterious and magical Herr Drosselmeyer every year — long after their daughters moved onto college and adulthood.
Schmidt, who turns age 62 on Dec. 1, will be in the role again when the ballet presents this year's production of “The Nutcracker” this Friday through Dec. 9 at the Arts United Center.
“They are very nice. They always ask me back,” said Schmidt, whose full-time job is teaching Advanced Placement History and Sociology at Homestead High School.
There is a reason the ballet keeps asking Schmidt back, said Karen Gibbons-Brown, the ballet's executive/artistic director.
“I think what Jim brings is something new and fresh every year,” Gibbons-Brown said. “You can tell he thinks about it.”
Gibbons-Brown said she has enjoyed watching Schmidt “grow” his performance over the years.
The only year he didn't play Drosselmeyer since 1995 — which was 1996 — the ballet had a guest director for the production. He wanted a Drosselmeyer who morphed into the Nutcracker Prince and danced, “and that's not me,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt said he really enjoys playing Drosselmeyer, who sends young Clara through dream worlds where she encounters characters such as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Mouse King and a handsome Nutcracker Prince.
“He's a great character part, and that makes it fun,” said Schmidt, who for 20 years or more also has played the Jester and been director and co-director of the Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival presented by Plymouth Congregational Church.
Drosselmeyer can be mysterious or somewhat frightening, Schmidt said. He creates dreams, but he doesn't always have complete control over what happens in those dreams. At the same time, the character has a joyous and compassionate side, such as when he brings the Prince to life in Clara's dream.
Schmidt also enjoys the chance to interact with a live audience and with youngsters at the Sugar Plum Parties after matinee performances. Young party guests often ask him about the magic he performed to bring the Nutcracker Prince to life.
Gibbons-Brown adds a new element or two to the production every year, which helps keep the role interesting, Schmidt said.
In addition, the time commitment fits his schedule.
He and some other adult performers only have to attend a handful of rehearsals before the intensive rehearsal begins the week before performances, he said. Schmidt also estimates he is off stage about 35 to 40 minutes of each performance — time he often uses backstage to grade papers for his classes at Homestead.
For Schmidt, one of the highlights of playing Drosselmeyer has been dancing with both of their daughters, each of whom played the lead youth role of Clara.
Jessamyn, who played Clara in 1994, now is age 31 and an associate professor of modern dance and English as a Second Language at University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine.
Younger daughter Kate, who played Clara in 1995 and 1996, now is age 29 and works in an unrelated field but teaches beginning classes with Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio.
“It was a big thrill,” he said of dancing with his daughters.
He gets a similar sense of reward from watching other dancers in the Fort Wayne Ballet program over the years.
“It's still fun to see how the kids grow in the part and how they move up in ability level.”