by D.J. Palladino
Rod Lathim’s resume is miraculously full of weird swerves. He turned his first job in a haunted Summerland restaurant into a successful book. He graduated from Santa Barbara Junior High’s celebrated theater program fledged under the wings of the late great Marjorie Luke, with a gaggle of movie stars-to-be such as Sam Bottoms, Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards—many his friends. Instead Lathim became a famous advocate for disability culture. But his best about-face, most of us think, took place when this fifth-generation Santa Barbaran stumbled upon his life’s work in a University of Kansas dormitory listening to Billy Joel sing “Just the Way You Are.”
“I suddenly knew what I had to do,” Lathim says. “I had to go. I realized I didn’t want a degree in music therapy.” What he wanted turned out to be Access Theater, an idea that he brought back home to Santa Barbara and, with help from the Parks and Recreation department, Devereux, Alpha School and St. Vincent’s, put on an impressive array of shows with talented disabled, able-bodied and deaf actors collaborating.
“Access Theater became my all-consuming focus for the next 18 years,” he explains. It brought the world swerving into new dimensions of theatrical experience, culminating in the internationally-acclaimed Storm Reading by Lathim and Neil Marcus, who starred.
But there is much more, and with characteristic swerviness, Lathim moved on from Access at its height, coordinating the restoration of the 75-year-old Santa Barbara Junior High Theater beginning in 1998, against all odds and within a budget that made the Granada’s concurrent reconstruction look like a Pentagon project. “I’m really proud of what we did (at what is now known as Marjorie Luke Theatre) and I know that we were lucky,” says Lathim, who managed to complete construction before the economy made such work prohibitive. “People thought that no one would want a theater on a junior high campus on the east side of town, and today it’s utilized by 140 arts and education users over 300 days a year.”
Lathim recently became a collage artist (naturally) and has returned to the written word with two projects about ghosts, one about The Spirit of the Big Yellow House and the other based on the last days of his mother’s life. He also co-produced Citizen McCaw, a documentary about the News-Press meltdown, wrote a one-act play, Unfinished Business, with Ellen Anderson that will debut at Center Stage Theater May 24-27, as part of a trio entitled Three, and someday soon may step out on a stage again, although that swerve is still in the future unknown where his swerves will no doubt serve the course of our lives just as nicely.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.