Long, winding trip led Hersey alum to acting career

  • Keith Szarabajka

    Keith Szarabajka

  • Actor Keith Szarabajka, a former Arlington Heights resident who found his love for the performing arts as a student at Hersey High School, stars in the small-town thriller "Reparation," to be screened Saturday night at the Wilmette Theatre.

    Actor Keith Szarabajka, a former Arlington Heights resident who found his love for the performing arts as a student at Hersey High School, stars in the small-town thriller "Reparation," to be screened Saturday night at the Wilmette Theatre.

Posted9/6/2016 5:30 AM

Remember the scene in the Chicago-shot "The Dark Knight" when a Gotham cop mutters, "You killed six of my friends" before the Joker puts a broken bottle to his throat?

Arlington Heights native Keith Szarabajka played the cop.


Szarabajka has been working as an actor and voice-over artist ever since he graduated from Hersey High School in 1971.

Originally from Summit, he attended St. Joseph Military Academy in La Grange Park and Campion Jesuit High School in Wisconsin before coming to Arlington Heights, a move that profoundly changed his life.

"I found a sense of freedom in Arlington Heights, oddly enough, that I didn't feel in Summit," Szarabajka said. "Summit was pretty enclosed. In Arlington Heights, the world suddenly opened up.

"I became unleashed and was allowed to find what it was I wanted to do, instead of what society wanted me to do, instead of what other people wanted me to do."

That strange, twisted path to enlightenment involves a crisis of faith, a bad choice in friends, and an academic reprieve that allowed the performing arts to save a lost teenager.

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"In high school, I was faced with a choice, whether I would go with this 'wild bunch' or go back to the church," Szarabajka said. "I was so confused. I wasn't sure what I believed.

"So I went to the church to find something, a focus or an answer. The priest told me that if I didn't believe, I should just get out. So I did and I never went back."

He hung out with his friends and cut so many French classes that school officials suspended him his junior year. They gave him the option of taking a different class.

He chose drama.

"I fell in love with it!" he said. "It was my savior. Hersey had a great theater department that would do six plays a year, two musicals and a variety show."


He won Hersey's annual "Best Actor" award both as a junior ("much to the chagrin of the seniors," Szarabajka noted) and as a senior. He also received the prestigious Senior Dramatics award.

He had found his niche.

But that isn't the weird part.

That happened after graduation on a Sunday night when Szarabajka and a few Hersey friends attended the Arlington Park Theater production of "Death of a Salesman" starring Jack Warden.

"After I dropped everybody off by about 9 p.m., I drove into Chicago," Szarabajka recalled. "Suddenly, I was on Lincoln Avenue in front of the Body Politic Theatre, standing next to a light pole.

"How did I get there? I have got to stop smoking pot! I started banging my head against the pole."

Then, someone tapped him on the shoulder: Chicago playwright/actor Bill Norris.

The two talked. Szarabajka explained how he wanted to be involved with theater.

"Come with me," Norris said.

"There's someone I want you to meet."

Szarabajka followed him into the theater where Chicago's Organic Theatre Company, co-founded by infamous stage and movie director Stuart Gordon, was staging the hit show "WARP."

"So the door opens," Szarabajka said, "and this big cloud of smoke comes out, and Stuart is standing there looking like Jerry Garcia."

"I want you to meet Keith I-Can't-Pronounce-His-Last-Name," Norris said to Gordon. "He wants to audition for 'WARP.'"

Gordon said: "Far out! Bring something to read tomorrow night. And make it militant!"

Szarabajka did.

And he was cast in "WARP" and worked for the Organic Theatre from 1972 to 1978, starring with such actors as Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz and Roberta Custer in the comedy "Bleacher Bums," along with other hit shows under Gordon's direction.

Gordon invited Szarabajka to be in his first movie, the cult horror comedy "The Re-Animator," but Szarabajka disliked the screenplay and declined.

Now, Szarabajka does a brisk business narrating audio books and video games. He also runs the Los Angeles branch of New York's Ensemble Studio Theater.

"It's not just a job," he said about the performing arts. "It's something you fall in love with. I say this to anyone: Find something that you love and do it. Then keep on doing it until your heart breaks. Then keep on doing it until your limbs stop twitching. That's what works. That's what carries you through."

­ -- Dann Gire

• Jamie Sotonoff and Dann Gire constantly hunt for suburbanites in showbiz who would make good stories. If you have a suggestion, contact them at jsotonoff@dailyherald.com and dgire@dailyherald.com.

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