Peter and his wife Bonnie Rubinstein live in River Falls, Wisconsin, on property along the Kinickinnic River. It is there that he has long been active in a “mish mash” of endeavors, including most notably his avocation for theater. Bonnie is well known as a glass artist, custom architectural fused glass to be precise, and together they have raised daughters Aliya and Lana, who are both young adults on the brink of their own successful careers.
Both art and theater seem to have deep roots in their family. As do organic vegetables, and to some extent, potatoes. Peter brought a jar of homemade pickles to our talk recently, in the hope that I could be bribed to say only good things about him. And in fact, I can. But as it turns out, the pickles weren’t necessary.
Though we talked at a local coffee shop, we opted for a picture at the adjacent Wine Cellar in Mendota Heights (we promised them the free advertising). No particular connotation there, other than the nice backdrop, and perhaps Peter continuing to age like a fine wine.
We don’t have much time, so you can just start talking and I’ll fill in the questions later.
OK, where would you like me to start?
Lets start at the very beginning. It’s a very nice place to start.
Which is an interesting story in itself. Both my parents were New York beatniks – they met at Green Mansions, literally right after the war, which was a resort in upstate New York, in the Catskills. My father was directing their theater program, and my mother ran the box office. Then after having lived in Manhattan, along with two other couples, they decided to move to Twig, Minnesota, of all places, which is due west of Duluth. And there they were going to write plays, poetry, prose … and grow potatoes. Well one couple bailed out, but they moved to Twig anyway, but pretty soon they decided they couldn’t grow potatoes in the clay of Minnesota.
And then they got pregnant with me. Literally one day before I was born – and I was a month premature – they moved to Minneapolis, and that’s where I was born. I have a brother Christopher, who was born three and a half years later. He lives near DC and is an actor at theaters in the DC and Baltimore area, including at the Ford’s Theater. So he works constantly as a performer, which is quite something in today’s world.
I assume your grandparents were from Europe?
I’m a first generation American. My mother’s family came from – “Was it Russia, was it Poland? Was it Russia, was it Poland?” – and they ended up living in Toronto. Which is where my mother (nee Golden) was raised.
And my father grew up in Berlin, but early on they fled to Frankfurt because his mother was very outspoken, a progenitor of the Socialist Democratic Worker’s party, which was in direct opposition to the Reich. Not only was she Jewish, but she was also considered a political infidel. She was teaching language in Frankfurt, and one night her good friend, who happened to be the chief of police, came to her and said “grab your son, your toothbrush, your favorite photos, and some warm clothes – and leave!”
Her husband had died before my father was born, so it was just the two of them, which was an interesting bond in itself. And that was ever present – my brother and I were very aware of that bond – and going through that kind of survival, with just a very small knit family.
Where did you grow up?
Most of my younger years I grew up near Lake Minnetonka, in the Deephaven, Greenwood area, which was a mile or two from my favorite place in the world – the Excelsior Amusement Park! I used to ride my bike there all the time. It was a great place to grow up.
Then I went to Edina High School for just my senior year but I wasn’t very active there. Along with seven or eight other students, I ended up going to the U and auditing classes my senior year. Then I ended up majoring at the U in Musical Theater, with a minor in psychology. And after I graduated, I launched myself into professional theater – back then there was a federal program called CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) that funded artists, including performing formats.
So did you grow up Jewish?
I did not find out I was a Jew until I was in the fourth grade.
OK, and you found out how? You looked down, or what?
No! But that’s good! It was in fourth grade when kids started to ask “what are you?” and I would say “what do you mean?” …“well I’m Lutheran, what are you?” And I would just think “what’s that?” My parents were true secular Jews, because of their backgrounds, I think. They gave up embracing Judaica and just embraced America. But the year I was in fourth grade, I visited my grandmother in New York, and that same year I visited my grandparents in Toronto. And in Toronto, I would go to shul with my grandfather – and I felt that something was going on, and it would seem strangely familiar. But still my parents were just like “here’s a book that will teach you all about religion.” So early on I chose to be a Buddhist for a number of years.
What brought you to Judaism?
I gravitated toward Judaism when I was a theater director at Camp Tikva, for two years I was in charge of their theater program.
And back to your resume, what were the stepping stones beyond college?
For four or five years after college I worked my butt off in theater – performing, producing, and doing commercial work so that I would be able to afford writing and directing. Then I took a two to three year hiatus from that in the mid 70s and became an organic farmer in Wyoming, Minnesota, in a communal experience.
Was Bonnie in the picture yet?
No, not at that time.
So I assume you were of draft age around then – is there a story there?
That’s a story in itself. I became an outspoken draft resister by my senior year in high school. I had listened to poet Allen Ginsberg speak at Macalester College at the end of 1968, and that energized me to a whole different dimension. So I was an outspoken resister before I even knew what my lottery number was. And that lasted a couple years until I went to study in theater programs in London and Rome – and that experience changed my mind, so as soon as I came back I applied for Conscientious Objector status. But the draft board would have none of that – and I found out that my lottery number was 25 – so I got called for my physical the very next week. I did not know what I was going to do. I had no idea. My stopgap measure was to go live with relatives in Toronto, but that was a big decision, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to come back for a very long time.
So I went for my physical and there I was, in the line with everybody. And at the last moment, I realized what I was going to do. I made the decision and I did it.
Which was ….?
Which was what?
Pardon? (cupping his hand to his ear)
Oh! I get it!
That was it! Really! That was it.
If you recall, you were played tones in each ear and you pressed this button and you hold it down when you can’t hear the tone and you let it off when you can. So I memorized the pattern for both ears, that I duplicated and triplicated in the booths that they end up putting you in. And I ended up [classified] 2Y for about six months and then got my 4F status.
Oh my! There was a story there wasn’t there. But we digress.
Yes, we digress.
After your communal farming, you moved back and what happened then? Had Bonnie come on the scene yet?
Not yet. I moved back to Minneapolis with who would become my first wife. During that time I decided I either needed to do something other than theater, or move to one of the coasts. So I decided then that theater would become an avocation for me, and it has remained that for me to this day. Though I don’t enjoy it any less.
But I needed to decide what I would do. So I ended up starting a technical search firm with a couple guys I had known. At one point we were up to fourteen employees, and we did corporate recruiting in software and hardware engineering for places like Target, Honeywell, Medtronic and Cardiac Pacemakers.
That lasted until 1981, when I got divorced and moved to Chicago. For two years prior to that I had been encouraged to work at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange (CBOE), so now I was able to do that. I needed a new life, so I became an options trader on the floor, yelling my lungs out – and let’s be clear, it was only for the money – that was not a life style I would otherwise choose. You would begin each day with a cup of coffee, then go to the bathroom, so that you could stay on the floor all morning. And there were guys in the bathroom taking a chug of whiskey and a chug of Maalox, and I didn’t want that. I was there for three years, and then I came back to the Twin Cities, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
Still no Bonnie?
No Bonnie yet! That’s going to become a theme here. No Bonnie yet? And I wish there had been. There’s a story there too, because we believe that with all the places we had both frequented in the Twin Cities that we should have easily met 15 years before we did.
Ok, so why did you come back?
I had the chance to either run the theater program at a University in Haifi, Israel, or to move to San Francisco to work at a head hunting firm there … that would have been fun. But I moved here because I was the person – more than my father – who encouraged my grandmother to move to the Twin Cities as she grew older, and needed more care, though it was against her will.
So I moved here and worked with Coldwell Banker commercial property, which became CBRE. And I did that for about a dozen years, brokering, selling, developing property, training.
At the end of that … is there a Bonnie?
Nope. Actually, yes there was! I was still with CBRE when I met her. I was living on Lake Calhoun but I had just decided to buy this place in River Falls – which is where we live now. It was a beautiful piece of property and it was on the river where I had been to trout fish. So I thought “Wow! I’m going to buy this and I’m going to raise a family.” I just didn’t know who yet.
How did you meet?
We met through a mutual friend. I remember our first date, she couldn’t find a baby sitter, so we tucked in Aliya, who was about six years old at the time. And we just sat and talked for hours on end, and literally one year to the day after we met, we got married. And then we adopted Lana from Kazan, Russia when she was two and a half, and we’ve been married almost 20 years.
So fast forward, what do you do today?
Do you mean for money? I trade currency pairs and futures. There’s a relationship between different currencies that changes daily, that changes hourly.
That changes as were speaking? So you could be losing money as you talk to me?
I hope not, because I don’t have any trades on right now. I am the quintessential day trader because I don’t leave those on overnight. Though I do wake up in the middle of the night to trade what I consider a gentle moving market. So between 2 and 4 am I trade the European market.
But I am also Chair of the plan commission for our township, so for the past twelve years – which I thought was only going to take me four years – I helped draft our comprehensive plan, which was then mandated by the State of Wisconsin. And then subsequently I helped put together a subdivision ordinance for our township, which was very difficult, and I am now negotiating a boundary agreement with the City of River Falls. There were myriad different interests.
What about Bonnie and the girls – what are they up to?
Well, as you know, Bonnie is a professional glass artist, and her studio is on our property. As we speak she is just finishing up two major projects that will be installed within the next month. One happens to be at the University Saint Paul campus – a renovation of the invasive species building, which will have four very large panels.
And Lana is at Eau Claire studying journalism, though she has an interest in theater, in technical theater. Which is what my brother’s wife is also involved with. And Aliya is living in Santa Monica, California, and is working in her field of choice after getting her Masters in environmental management. She specialized in coastal fisheries at UC Santa Barbara.
Now the random round. Did you have a favorite teacher growing up?
Are you a mime?
Yeah, I was trained as a mime.
I would ask you to do something, but I suppose that would be hard to reproduce here.
Unbeknownst to many people Marcel Marceau used to go to the University of Minnesota at Moorhead each year to teach master classes for a week, and I found out about it and chased up there for two years in a row. And you’d think that a mime who is so wonderfully talented at expressing themselves non-verbally – but he spoke constantly, more than anybody I ever knew.
I suppose he had to let it all out. How about one more question, do you have any phobias?
I don’t like being in small spaces. Confined spaces.
That’s an interesting image.
A mime who dislikes confined places.
Let’s wrap up with your current project at temple. You have been active in many ways, maybe most notably for directing the Purim “spiel” several times.
This Purim we are going to be producing a wonderful show called Middle East Side Story. It will be even better than last year’s. It’s going to be terrific.
And can I assume Bonnie will be there?
Yes. Bonnie will be there.