Friday, March 13, 2009
Rik Pierce: turning bends in the road into a life of opportunities
Carlisle’s Rik Pierce is currently enjoying a 20-year retirement. Retirement means a 20-year association with the Concord Players, acting in most of their productions since 1989: Our Town, Sylvia, The Foreigner, and more, and being the recipient of the Association of Community Theaters’ Best Actor award. Most recently, it has meant photographing and digitally archiving the Players’ productions, including last month’s very successful Cabaret. You can see some of Rik’s production photographs on the Concord Players’ website, www.concordplayers.org. “I’ve always taken pictures,” he says. In addition to his work for the Concord Players, he has been a regular photographer for the Mosquito for years and photographs and archives exhibits for the Concord Art Association as well.
Retirement has also meant exercising an interest in computers that dates back to a fascination with the encoded puzzles called cryptograms, which he learned to create, himself. Writing cryptograms led to writing basic computer programs for games, some of which he sold to SoftSide Magazine in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. SoftSide was an early computer magazine that published the latest programs and games for the old Apple II and Apple IIE computers and other early PCs. Rik took some courses to learn computer languages like COBAL, and gained experience with a job at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, where he worked for “a year or more” as part of the team writing the firm’s office networking system. “My son Tim,” he says, “grew up on my knee, of course, and passed me in [programming] ability by the time he was about nine.”
Tim, now 37, hosted the Mosquito website, something his father started, with another Carlislean, Paul Hackbarth. “Paul’s program,” says Rik, “would filter everything and would make pages for the online version of the paper. I would put in the pictures and tweak the design. Now, Deb Kablotsky is contributing much of the design and workup, so I work on it about every other week or so.” Rik also keeps his skills sharp by working on web pages for friends.
The early road
Rik has a way of wandering into roads not taken and creating opportunities from the journey. A native New Yorker, he was born in Manhattan and moved with his family to Manhasset, Long Island, in the 1940s, and then later to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, an experience he describes as “painful. I thought all the other kids were so sure of themselves, and I had no clue what to do, who I was. Didn’t have any idea what I wanted or what I might be good at.”
“I went to Iowa Wesleyan College,” he said, “because no other college would take me after my academic performance at Hill.” For the boy from New York, landing in Iowa led to a life-altering move, one of those bends in the road that became an opportunity.
“I met a girl there,” he says. “She was an actress. I joined the theater program to be around her.” He found this an interesting turn of events, because his mother was an actress and his father was a jack-of-all-backstage-trades in the Little Lake Theater outside Pittsburgh. He enjoyed his time in Iowa Wesleyan’s Theater department, but “the girl didn’t last.” In typically quixotic fashion, Rik not only left the girl, but also the school and transferred to the University of Pittsburgh.
There he tried a Creative Writing major, “because I thought what I really wanted was to write. The truth was, I wanted to have been a writer, not to actually write.” Still a less than stellar student, he says he failed History and did not graduate. “I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do.”
The road back to New York
Rik, however, had a way of landing on his feet and building on those quirky bends in his road. He moved in with his Aunt Polly, who had an apartment on East 94th Street in New York and stayed there for about a year. He got a job that paid about $85 a week at Rowman and Littlefield Publishing and joined the amateur theater club where his parents had met. His interest in acting was rekindled, and he appeared in a play called Boy Meets Girl, and then in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. He considered trying to “go pro,” but thought, “Not yet. You don’t do that; nobody can do that.” The idea, however, had taken hold. Funding himself with stock his father had given him out of a family business and his earnings at Rowman and Littlefield, he says, “I decided to try to be an actor.”
He began “making the rounds, trying to get auditions.” He was hired for a commercial for Hostess Doughnuts, and that led to an audition for a Pirandello play, Call It Virtue, which opened at the New Little Theatre at Astor Place, off-Broadway. He was cast as a student who “was hidden in a closet for most of the show,” but, he thought, it was something.
“When I first started, I felt I couldn’t commit to doing commercials because I needed to ‘make the rounds.’” He gave up his job at the publishing company, however, and “I got a head shot taken and fabricated some kind of biography.” The Pirandello show ran for a few weeks, and when it closed, he seriously sought out casting people, agents and directors, “keeping track of everything in a journal. Then I started getting quite a few commercials.”
A career in acting for commercials
It seemed like this bend in the road might lead to a career after all. By this time, Rik had moved to an apartment in Brooklyn “above a coffee shop and across from Abraham and Strauss,” the department store built in 1883 that later became Macy’s. Commercials began to come his way with increasing frequency. He made one for McDonald’s in which he played a father comforting a sad little daughter by taking her out for a hamburger, more for Alka Seltzer and Volkswagen and finally, a more famous one for Hai Karate after-shave. “This was a Pfizer Pharmaceuticals product,” he says. “They had picked up on the popularity of after-shaves during this period (the 1960s), and they thought, we’ll put some scent into some water and get in on this.”
“This” turned out to be a great success, largely because of the popularity of Rik’s commercial, in which he played a sort of Robert Q. Lewis lookalike who asks a woman for a date. Instead of noticing his dorkiness, she is irresistibly attracted to his after-shave, and he is forced to defend himself from her with karate-style moves. Rik was launched on a 25-year career as an actor in commercials, a career that would allow him to retire at 50, “when I noticed that I was no longer getting young father roles and people weren’t casting grandfathers, at least not yet.”
Family and home ownership
Rik had experienced other bends in the road along his way, and turned them into opportunities as well. “I met [my wife] Nancy at a party in New York. She was working on a doctorate in Social Psychology at Columbia.” They became a couple, married and were soon seeking a new home. They heard about a group of brownstone houses in Brooklyn being sold at bargain prices, and looked into buying one to live in and turn into an apartment building. They found one on Pacific Street that “was empty except for some pigeons and a cat with a litter of kittens” and bought it for $12,500. Rik set about trying to renovate it, “knocking down walls, hacking away at things with friends.” Unlike other things he had tried, this activity did not lead to a new interest or career. “After a while,” he says, “we just sort of lived in it. We finally hired contractors and spent $80,000 renovating it. Then we decided to live in the whole house. It was great. We had Tim; we got involved in local politics. We worked on Congressional campaigns and put up campaign workers in the spare rooms. At any one time, there might be six extra people in there with us.”
The road to Carlisle
Nancy completed her doctorate, they raised Tim and he completed high school, and as Rik’s commercial acting career showed signs of winding down, the Pierces thought that it would be a good time to pull up stakes and retire to the Boston area, where both he and Nancy had family. They left New York in 1989 “in the same month that we paid up our mortgage.” Tim went off to college at Amherst, they found their house in Carlisle, and Rik and Nancy Pierce have been here ever since. Rik started almost immediately with the Concord Players and Nancy joined the Finance Committee. Typically, neither has looked back, except to reflect on the bends in their road, and wonder where the next one might lead.
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito