In 1988, Ruben Rosthenhausler was a 19-year-old college dropout, interested in drugs, drink and women.
Theater was not on his radar.
When his mother saw an Arizona Rose Theatre audition notice, she encouraged him to try out.
He had never been to the theater, but he loved singing. He did what his mother suggested.
And his life changed.
Rosthenhuasler, now 45, is one of a cast of 25 who will be on stage this weekend when the Rose remounts its original musical, “Tombstone the Musical.” He has been in nearly every show the company has done since it started nearly 30 years ago.
To Rosthenhausler, the Rose is family. His “saving grace.” Where he met his wife and where their children fell in love with theater.
That doesn’t surprise Cynthia Howell, who founded the company with her late husband, Terry.
“When we started, we reached out to those in the community who needed a place,” she says, sitting outside a Northwest Starbuck’s recently.
“It’s a sense of family with everyone.”
Terry and Cynthia Howell owned a production company and were immersed in the world of theater and film. Hollywood was their home.
Hollywood had a frenzy about it, so they moved to Pine Mountain, a little more than an hour outside Los Angeles, to live in a more quiet community while they continued their careers.
“We did a lot of soul searching” while there, recalls Cynthia. “We decided it was time to move on.”
Terry grew up in Tucson, graduating from Amphitheater High School in 1960. Wanting a family-friendly environment, they made the Old Pueblo their home in 1985.
Theater was in their blood and their area of expertise. So rather than abandoning it, in 1986 they opened the Rose, a children’s theater with the intent of teaching and staging original musicals.
“We wanted to write shows for young people that had a positive resolution,” says Cynthia.
The children’s theater didn’t catch on the way they hoped, so they changed the focus to a company that concentrated on family-friendly entertainment. But the commitment to original works remained: the company has mounted eight musicals the family has written. The company now does three to four shows a season, which include established plays — an avenue they hope will help develop a larger audience.
“It’s been a struggle, but we don’t give up easily,” says Cynthia. “We believe that it’s important for generations to grow up with theater.”
The Howells moved here with three children. The fourth was born in Tucson.
It was important to the parents that their children be exposed to theater.
“There’s so much knowledge in theater,” says Cynthia. “It opens your mind, and it’s essential that we keep open minds.”
But the Howells were not keen on their kids going into the business.
“Our children were raised in the theater, though we encouraged them not to go into show business,” says Cynthia with a laugh. “We involved them in other things.”
But a passion like the Howells is pretty contagious. The oldest, Brandon, 41, is a composer, and sings and acts; his two children and wife are also in “Tombstone.” The second Howell child, Luke, 31 (whose wife is also in it), and sister Erin Recuparo, 29, both sing and act, as does the youngest, Michael, 24, who is also an illusionist.
The extended family
Ruben Rosthenhausler isn’t related by blood to the Howells.
But he might as well be.
“Terry and Cynthia were like a mom and dad to me,” he says.
When Rosthenhausler started working with the Rose, he continued his partying ways.
But one day he came to perform in a children’s matinee hung over, looking exhausted and smelling of alcohol.
“Terry said to me, ‘You will never come into the theater this way again. It’s not fair to the kids. You have to make a choice,’” recalls Rosthenhausler. “After the show I thought about it and realized I couldn’t do both. I never got drunk again.”
Terry Howell was also key to Rostenhausler returning to college.
“We would talk about life. He’d ask me what I wanted to do, and he encouraged me to go back to school. He gave me something to focus on.”
Rosthenhausler graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in Spanish literature, but the call of the arts never left him. Today he is the technical director with the Berger Performing Arts Center, using skills — everything from lighting to sound — he perfected at the Rose for acts that perform at the center.
His commitment to the company is so deep that he acts in almost all of the productions, as do his children, Sarah, 10, and Jessica, 5, and his wife, Leah.
He isn’t alone in his allegiance to the theater. Many come to the Rose, but few go.
Teresa Shade has designed costumes and performed with the company for about 24 years.
“They are kind and gentle,” she says of the people at the Rose. “We go to each other’s birthday parties, we keep in touch, we do things together. There is really a sense of family.”
“Our thing is to give audiences a chance to come and relax,” says Cynthia. “And for those who work the shows, it’s the same opportunity. So many of them stayed. Luke and Brandon met their wives through the theater. My youngest (Michael) is still waiting for his to walk through the door.”
Terry Howell’s death
Terry Howell was just 61 when he died suddenly of heart failure in 2006.
He had been a major force behind the company, planning, producing, writing and directing the original musicals. His unexpected death left a huge hole in the family’s hearts and a question mark about the Rose.
“It was a dream we had to keep alive,” says Cynthia, who had been married to Terry for 40 years. “The children and I talked and I asked ‘What do you want to do?’ They all wanted it to live. They picked it up and ran with it.”
Brandon now does the composing and directing, and in the upcoming production of “Tombstone,” he plays Wyatt Earp. His three siblings pitch in, too. Erin has written a new song for this production of “Tombstone” and will play Nellie Cashman. Luke has freshened the script and will play Doc Holliday. Michael acts and sings, as well — he takes on the Morgan Earp character for the upcoming production.
The Rose first staged “Tombstone” in 1996, with the book by Terry Howell, and music and lyrics by Terry and son Brandon.
“We wondered what we could write that would have action and speak of Arizona,” Cynthia recalls.
Inspired by a family trip to Tombstone and a picture of Nellie Cashman on the courthouse, Terry immersed himself in research and wrote the fact-based musical from the perspective of Cashman, a nurse, business woman and a force in the town of Tombstone.
“When you think of Tombstone, you think about the gunfight,” says Brandon. “But that’s just two minutes of the story.”
“On our first opening night, Terry and I were so nervous,” recalls Cynthia. “We didn’t know if the audience would throw tomatoes or love it.”
They loved it. Over the years, the Rose has mounted the musical four times in Tucson — the first was at the Leo Rich Theatre, the remaining at the Berger. The upcoming performance, also at the Berger, will be the fifth. The production has its own “Tombstone” groupies who come dressed in old west garb and know the lyrics to the songs.
They also got a nibble from a producer who wanted to bring it to an off-Broadway theater.
“In 2003, it was just talk, but in 2007, it came up again,” says Brandon. “We worked on getting an off-Broadway production going. But in 2008, the economy turned and we lost momentum.”
Now “Tombstone” is getting another staging.
“We thought it was time to pull out the original,” says Brandon, who directs and has reworked many of the songs.
“Maybe we can head it towards off-Broadway again.”