MARATHON, Florida Keys — As the curtain rises on Marathon Community Theatre productions and singers, dancers and musicians gear up for a busy winter season, local thespian John Schaefer is marking a decade since he first walked onto a stage — ever.
The engaging Schaefer has always been quick with a laugh and a joke. Once he caught the acting bug, however, theater fans began eagerly anticipating the jovial postal worker's upcoming roles.
With his signature white hair, boisterous laugh and toothy smile, Schaefer dedicates himself to his characters. He morphs his physical appearance to assume roles and memorizes lines during walks with his wife Kathryn and their labradoodle rescue dog, Shadow — and while delivering mail on his daily route.
He ditched frigid Ohio for the mail delivery job, despite never having visited the Florida Keys before, when a fax advertising an open position in Marathon arrived in his postmaster's office.
"I thought I'd drive down to the Keys on vacation and see what it's like," said Schaefer. "I came to Fort Lauderdale, drove to Founders Park in Islamorada, went to the beach and said, 'Yeah, I can live here.'"
Now the 52-year-old Schaefer is nearing 25 years with the U.S. Postal Service. He also has a bachelor's degree in physics that keeps him interested in teaching physical sciences again one day, perhaps at a community college.
His fellow postal workers in Marathon were instrumental in getting him to join the not-for-profit Marathon Community Theatre. The organization has more than 200 members, and is dedicated to enhancing the cultural life of the Middle Keys.
For Schaefer, it's the love, the laughter, the challenge and the oneness of the Middle Keys troupe that keep him coming back each season for more adventure, drama, skits and music at the tiny theater. He regards it as a good place for people to soak up art and culture when they're not fishing, enjoying water sports and sampling Marathon's other attractions.
"It's more intimate than going to the movies," said Schaefer. "You're literally feet from the actors and you're seeing them become other people."
In his first-ever production, he played a MacArthur-style general in "Kiss Me Kate." He was so nervous that the corncob pipe in his mouth shook, and he had to remove it.
"In my first lead role, I didn't want to screw it up for everybody else in the show," Schaefer recalled. "I'm out there on stage so much, I was thinking I could really make this show suck, and all the work that these guys are putting in could be for nothing, you know? I was so nervous about that."
Yet the shows continued, and lead comedic roles have become Schaefer's wheelhouse. His most recent endeavor was "A Tuna Christmas," a 22-character, two-man play in which each actor assumes 11 different character roles in a hilarious dose of Americana.
Schaefer also sits on the theater's board of directors to help ensure the community organization remains a unique, inherently valuable part of the region and the overall Keys experience.
"As actors, we love it when people laugh," he said. "It's why you do it, it's your only payment — when you can get your audience to erupt in laughter, it's a high."
Keys life also is a "high" for Schaefer. An avid tennis, and most recently pickleball, player, he admits he's prone to seasickness so doesn't venture out deep-sea fishing if it's too rough. However, like most Marathon residents, he said enjoying the good life in the Keys is all about the water.
In fact, Schaefer continues trying to convince his twin brother Jim, a frequent visitor from Ohio, to relocate to Marathon. He particularly appreciates the small, tight-knit community and the response his postal customers have to his performances.
"I've had snowbirds move here, on my postal route, and the first show they came to see was 'A Few Good Men' — people I'd never seen in the theater before or who had never been to a community theater before," said Schaefer. "They were just blown away and now they come to see everything."
After a performance of "Me and My Girl," he had a guest who'd been struggling with a recent loss confide that for two hours she forgot her troubles entirely and could just laugh and have joy.
"That's a great feeling, to be able to have an impact on somebody even if it's for a couple hours," Schaefer said.
"When I'm delivering mail for people and they're asking me when my next show is, that makes me feel good on behalf of the theater, that I can represent them well enough that somebody wants to come see a show — take a chance on a forty-dollar night out just because I'm in it," he said, adding with a laugh, "But it's also a lot more pressure."
Marathon audiences can look forward to Schaefer's next stab at grabbing laughs in the upcoming Mel Brooks musical, "The Producers," with performances between March 5 and April 4.
Marathon Community Theatre: marathontheater.org
Marathon visitor information: fla-keys.com/marathon or
Schaefer dedicates himself to his characters, morphing his appearance to assume different roles.
Schaefer in "A Few Good Men."
Schaefer and wife Kathryn were married in 2010 on Sombrero Beach in Marathon.
Schaefer (left) and Eric Rolfe perform in "Guys and Dolls."