Shell Point Resident Takes to the Stage

Retirement for Phil Hilton Means New Creative Experiences

by Jill Tyrer

For someone who’s been at Shell Point for just over a year, Phil Hilton has been making quite an impression. His artworks can be seen in the gallery and gift shop, he’s taught a couple of courses, he appeared in Shell Point’s Own Theater production of Love Letters, he sings with the Shell Point Singers, his photographs have graced the community’s newspaper, and that’s just a start. Recently he landed the role of Pops, the father of the leading lady in the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre’s The Pajama Game.

For six weeks, Phil Hilton (far right) played “Pops” in the Broadway Palm’s production of The Pajama Game. Photo courtesy of the Broadway Palm.

“It’s fun, but it’s also work when you’re doing over 60 shows in six weeks,” he said. That’s six nights a week, plus matinees. When he turned out for auditions, he found professional actors were flying in from New York and elsewhere for jobs at Broadway Palm. What’s more, they were mostly triple threats; not only did they act, they had to sing and dance well, too.

“I didn’t expect to be selected because the level of professionalism was really high,” Hilton said. Apparently he did better than he thought, because he landed the part of the father, one of the few roles that went to locals. So from the end of December through mid-February, he was up there with the rest of them, acting, singing, and dancing. And when he wasn’t on stage, he was moving sets with others in the cast. But unlike many of them, he wasn’t there to make money so much as for the satisfaction of it all. “I looked at the audition and the whole thing as a challenge.”

Challenge seems to be a common theme in Hilton’s life. He was “pretty square” in high school, then went into the Navy, “and after the Navy, to Ohio University in the class of ’54, which I thought meant I had 54 years to complete my degree work,” he said with a grin. Since he left college to go into the Air Force, he didn’t get around to finishing a college degree until this past December. He spent the past several years taking distance-learning courses in history, philosophy, English and a variety of other subjects, and will receive his bachelor’s degree in June, in Athens, Ohio. He hopes to celebrate with his grandson, who will be graduating from Miami University in Ohio, and his granddaughter, who is completing doctorate work at the University of Kansas.

Encouraged by his course work, he has added writing and poetry to his list of creative endeavors. A trade publication for the travel industry is publishing a poem inspired by his travels to Tanzania – one of numerous places around the globe Hilton and his wife, Barbara, have traveled. He also has written his memoirs. “I wished I’d had something like that from my father,” he said.

In addition to expressing himself through acting and writing, Hilton also puts another of his talents to work‹painting. “I’ve always painted, as far back as I can remember,” said Hilton. He started out working with oils, then switched to acrylics before discovering watercolor. “If I hadn’t paid for an eight-week course, I probably would’ve quit after the first class, because it was a disaster,” he said. Before long, though, he took to the medium and soon was teaching classes himself.

Hilton is now a “signature member” of the Florida Watercolor Society, a position one earns by being accepted into juried shows. Also a member of the Sanibel-Captiva Art League, he had works in the league’s juried show last year, as well as the annual spring art show at Shell Point. “I sell what I can,” Hilton said. “I keep the prices reasonable because I can only store so many under my bed.” People can also see his works in Shell Point’s gift shop; he’s painted scenes around the community and around Florida and made them into sets of note cards.

Hilton continues to teach watercolor courses, now at Shell Point. He also instructs a course in calligraphy, a skill he polished through his college studies. “It’s very disciplined, not a whole lot to do with art,” he said. At the urging of his professor, he took an advanced course and scored one of only a handful of perfect grades his instructor had given in more than 20 years.

Recently, he’s been flexing his artistic muscle – and calling on his days as a metalsmith in the Navy – to create a stained-glass window. Working in Shell Point’s stained-glass studio, he’s piecing together a bird of paradise design.

In spite of the satisfaction he has gotten from acting at Broadway Palm, he figured The Pajama Game might be his final curtain as an actor on that stage, although he might continue behind the scenes, helping design and paint sets. “It’s a business and it’s a job,” he said. And the time commitment cut into his other ventures, not only teaching and painting, but also singing with the Shell Point Singers and working on his genealogy, not to mention bicycling around Shell Point, playing the organ, or getting in an occasional game of golf.

“Whether it’s painting or whatever, having people like what I do,” gives him the most pride, he said. “I like doing stuff for people.”

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