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The possible dream: Robert Peterson has no plans to retire — he's too busy

Robert Peterson remembers exactly when the dream was born.

He had grown up in a musical family, sang as a boy — especially at family reunions, where his grandfather played his "magic box." (That was what folks called his fiddle.) "But then I got more interested in sports and girls."

In high school, the urge to sing came back. But it was when Peterson saw the movie "Tonight We Sing" that the resolve solidified. "It was the story of impresario Sol Hurok, and I heard Ezio Pinza sing. 'I want to be like that,' I said. Pinza became my idol."

For the Utah boy (Peterson was born in Nebraska but moved back to his family's roots when he was 10), that desire to sing great songs on the world's greatest stages turned out to be not such an impossible dream, after all.

Peterson's study of classical music took him from the University of Utah to the Julliard School of Music, Chatham Square and other schools and conservatories in the East. He was well on his way to a career in opera when another of life's "accidentals" sent him in a new direction. "I discovered musical theater."

He was working at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont and had applied for a Rockefeller Grant to put together a series of concerts but was turned down. (He found out later it was because he had already started his family, and the foundation felt that would be a distraction.) And then a friend called. "He told me there was a vacancy in 'Camelot,' and I should get down there to audition."

Peterson ended up getting in the show, ended up as the understudy for Robert Goulet, ended up replacing Goulet after he left the Broadway production, ended up going on to a greater career in music and theater than he could have ever have hoped or dreamed.

"I wouldn't change anything," he says now. "I've been able to make a living doing what I loved."

In the early 1970s, the Petersons (by then, he and his wife Lois had six children) were getting tired of New York. "It was different. It used to be, you could walk in Central Park night or day. It had all these wonderful ethnic villages. But it changed drastically. We felt it was not a good place to bring up children."

A couple of years earlier, he had been back to Salt Lake City for "Promised Valley," and he began to explore the possibilities of making the Wasatch Front his headquarters. "I knew I'd be away from home a lot," but he felt that home would be a better environment.

Peterson hooked up with the theater department at the University of Utah, becoming an artist-in-residence and a visiting professor, "and that started something that has become the definitive direction of my life."

Since then, there have been more plays and musicals than he can count, both around the state and in other parts of the country. In 2001, he and Lois moved to St. George — "that was something we always wanted to do. We're both desert rats" — but he entertains few thoughts of retirement.

"About the only change is that I get in more golf," he said with a laugh.

Peterson appeared in a wildly successful "Man of La Mancha," (what many consider his signature role) during last year's Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City and would have been back at the festival this summer but for a conflict with rehearsals for two Pioneer Memorial Theatre productions he will appear in this spring, "Playboy of the Western World" and "Ragtime."

Because he will have most of the summer free, however, he will have time to concentrate on another project that has finally come to the surface: CDs.

Late last year, Peterson released his first two CDs. "I had done four record albums, back when that was what you did. But I'm a big procrastinator. I kept talking about doing CDs, but something else always came up. Finally, last summer, my two sons (who acted as producers for the project) pinned me down."

The first CD, titled "Things Lovely," is a remastering of one of those early albums, a collection of sacred songs performed with Melva Niles Barborka. "We kept that one intact, the way it was." Peterson was impressed with how today's technology could make it so clear and precise. "It's like you are sitting by the orchestra in a big hall." The collection includes hymns, such as "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" and "Abide With Me," as well as classical such selections as Handel's "Praise Be to Thee."

The second CD, "The Impossible Dream," features some of Broadway's best show tunes, including "They Call the Wind Maria," "Night and Day" and "If Ever I Would Leave You." It incorporates remastered recordings with several new songs recorded last summer.

Peterson is "very pleased" with the results. And now has several other CDs in the works. He's planning a Christmas collection for this year, hopes to do more show tunes and another sacred album. He also plans to include some of his children on the Christmas album. "We've sung as a family a lot." Having his family involved has been one of his favorite accomplishments, he says. Although none of the six became professional musicians, they all developed a love for music.

Peterson has never regretted the move away from the bright lights of New York. In fact, he says, some of his New York friends have been jealous. "We have such an inordinate amount of talent for a community of our size. It's a heritage from the early pioneers who brought it with them and kept it alive. There's a wonderful ambience here. And I've had an opportunity to do so much good, really good, theater."

It has not always been easy, of course. He was blessed with a good voice, he says. "But I have studied hard. I have learned to use it correctly. And that's why it still works." He's had knee-replacement surgery on both knees but is still full of vitality as he moves into his seventh decade.

Not every one gets to live out dreams the way Peterson has. And he feels blessed for that, too. "To do what you love to do, and have it well-received, and have your family at your side — you can't ask for much more than that."


E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com