Discipline: Interdisciplinary Art

Fred Rochlin

Discipline: Interdisciplinary Art
Region: Los Angeles, CA
MacDowell Fellowships: 1996, 1998

Fred Rochlin (1923-2002)

A close friend once described Fred Rochlin as the guy you would avoid in line at the post office. Shuffling into a room in sneakers and a worn cap, he had a raspy, high-pitched voice, reminiscent of Walter Brennan. If he engaged you in conversation, the first thing out of his mouth might be: "Do you believe in God?"

Rochlin supported no organized religion, but he was spiritual. He saw life as a never-ending search for meaning, which he pursued through World War II as the navigator of a bomber, then by building a successful architectural firm in Los Angeles and finally the discovery--in his eighth decade--of an improbable second career as a spellbinding monologuist.

His show, and a subsequent book, was called "Old Man in a Baseball Cap: A Memoir of World War II." It was a series of monologues about his wartime experiences, full of sexual adventures and chilling confrontations with death, that he performed at theaters around the country between 1996 and 2001.

"The monologue, about an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, has the elements of an epic: love and death, honor and betrayal, vengefulness and martyrdom, and ultimately, the fortuitousness of survival," New York Times cultural critic Bruce Weber wrote in a glowing article after seeing Rochlin in 1998 at the B Street Theater in Sacramento.

He was past 70 when he began performing, making him "maybe the oldest fledgling performance artist in the world," Weber said. Shedding the cautiousness bred in him as one of the few Jews growing up in rural Arizona in the 1920s, he shocked family members and friends with his newfound life on stage. He was "the artist formerly known as Dad," daughter Margy Rochlin said in a wryly affectionate portrait for National Public Radio in 1998.

At the age of 19, he signed up for the Army Air Corps and was assigned to navigation school. He flew 50 combat missions over Europe and was shot down twice. By the war's end, he had been decorated 14 times.

After the war he enrolled at UC Berkeley, earning a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1949. He apprenticed in the Los Angeles offices of architects Lloyd Wright and Charles Eames before founding Rochlin & Baran in 1952 with Berkeley classmate Ephraim Baran. In 1986, when he was 63, he announced his retirement in a letter that quoted Yeats and Thoreau. "It takes the whole of a lifetime just to learn how to live it," he told his colleagues. Then he rented a small Santa Monica studio and spent the next several years designing primitive toys, collapsible shelters and small architectural projects.

In 1994, a friend suggested that he take a workshop with performance artist Spaulding Gray at Esalen Institute, the New Age outpost in Big Sur. Gray drew out each participant's life stories, which they had to present in the form of a monologue. All the harrowing war experiences he had spent decades trying to forget came pouring out. "I just got up there and yapped away," Rochlin recalled in the Chicago Tribune.

Back in Los Angeles, he signed up for a class in solo performance at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. He was the oldest student by three or four decades. "He came in and I honestly didn't understand what he was doing in class," said instructor Laurie Lathem. "He was a nonactor, this old man."

Then he read a story about one of his World War II experiences and it "blew everyone away," Lathem said. "Everyone was in tears. I hadn't been teaching long, but I did know that what we were hearing was very special."

Bio adapted from the LA Times



Fred Rochlin worked in the Mixter studio.

Built in 1927–1930, the Florence Kilpatrick Mixter Studio was funded by its namesake and designed by the architect F. Winsor, Jr., who also designed MacDowell's original Savidge Library in 1925. Mixter Studio, solidly built of yellow and grey-hued granite, once had sweeping views of Pack Monadnock to the east. The lush forest has now grown…

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