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VOL. 40 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 24, 2016

Alpiar’s rags-to-riches story also could be a play

By Tim Ghianni

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COOKEVILLE – “Fearless!” is a musical dramedy about the stages of love over the generations, with most problems solved through humor.

People have told Hal Alpiar that the music is comparable to a modern-day “West Side Story” or “Sound of Music,” without the Sharks and Jets or the Nazis and the nanny, of course.

It also is, in a very real way, the result of a real-life love story between Valerie Connelly ­– a painter of moody landscapes, lively former French teacher and retired Chi-Town chanteuse – and Hal Alpiar, a former Madison Avenue pitchman-turned-business educator-turned consultant.

Oh yeah. He’s also a novelist, which is perhaps the one thing that really led this duo to what they call “a committed relationship” in a Cookeville-area subdivision where they plot strategy for the play that has its opening night July 7 and has performances through July 17.

Hal, who early on in life was “happily divorced” and given custody of his three children – including one who is mentally challenged and institutionalized – had a Dickensian start to the life that now finds him living joyfully in Cookeville.

“I was born and raised in New York, the suburbs of New York City. Larchmont, one of the richest towns in the country. I was the poorest kid in town. My dad was a mailman, and he probably never made more than $5,000 a year and he drank half of that.

“We had a couple of rats living in the living room.”

Hal escaped by going to Iona College while also working around the clock to pay his bills.

“I went right from classes to selling pots and pans, door-to-door. Then I went to work in a liquor store for a couple of hours. After that, I worked as a watchman at a waterfront park from midnight to 2 and I was back up at 5 or 6, and I went to school, where I was on the crew team and played baseball.”

After graduation, he got his master’s degree in business from Long Island University by taking night classes after working days at a New Jersey publishing house to support his wife and three children.

After his divorce, he began his Madison Avenue life, commuting to Manhattan, composing jingles, making loads of money as a pitchman, never knowing, of course, that he was learning skills that he uses to push “Fearless!”

“I did all of that stuff and then decided I’d had enough of it. I wanted to be a teacher. I was fed up with all the politics of the ad agency business. So I walked out.”

He taught business at a couple of different colleges before deciding to launch “Uncollege” – its incorporated name – a training program devised for young business people.

He left that world to become a consultant in the health care business. On the side, he began writing, first books aimed for his profession and then novels.

“In the middle of this I met Kathy and we had a good marriage for 27 years. Everything was fine. Then she took ill. For about a year she was getting worse.”

Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her, but she remained in decline. “Her getting sick was a real kick in the butt. She was my business partner. I hadn’t signed a check in 30 years.”

She was increasingly dependent on his care and died of what doctors determined was “end-stage liver disease she got from the rheumatic fever she had when she was 9 years old,” Hal explains.

It was during this time of turmoil that he happened on Valerie – she runs a small publishing company, Nightengale Media, out of her house – as he was contributing to a book called “The Art of Grandparenting.”

“I had gone through a terrible time. It drained me. But I had already begun working with Valerie on the telephone,” first on that collection and then on his first novel, “High Tide,” a work of fiction inspired by true events he witnessed first-hand: the largest off-shore drug bust in history at that time.

His part in the legend is less than that of his boat, the 1957 Chris-Craft motor launch – docked on the Jersey Shore – that he escaped into after his first marriage failed and Madison Avenue had lost its allure. The boat was “borrowed” by drug trade desperadoes, and it sank when the bad guys overloaded its capacity with hashish transferred from a mother ship out past U.S. territorial waters.

“There were these balls of hashish floating up on the beach for days,” he says. “And all these hippies were walking, happily up and down the beach,” rescuing the little balls of cannabis resin and, doubtless, finding them good homes.

He wrote a book about that tale and soon was engaging in lively phone discussions about editing and the like with Valerie, who was his publisher.

Those sometimes heated, but usually fruitful, discussions continued when they began talking about what now has become “Fearless!”

That led to a meeting – halfway between her home in Cookeville and Hal’s Delaware domicile – in Roanoke, Virginia, where they spent a weekend arguing about how the play should be written and presented.

In short order, he was invited, with his dog, to Valerie’s house in Cookeville for Thanksgiving. And then he invited her and her dogs to Delaware for Christmas.

The flame was being fed by their mutual love of the play, of words, of dogs and, of course, of each other.

Then, as Hal describes it, Valerie decided he might as well move in with her in Putnam County. “It was just what I needed. Some quiet in my life,” says happy Hal.

He enjoys the peace of Putnam County, where yard work is a release for him. And where he has in the past few months met just about every merchant while searching for funding for the play.

“I really like the people here,” he says. “They are special.

“It’s a very tight community and very supportive. They make the ‘Tennessee volunteer’ term really fit. It’s a very together community.”

The woman, who finds it difficult to take her eyes off him while he tells his story, grew up in the Chicago area.

“I married my college sweetheart after two years in the Peace Corps. We married in 1971 and had two daughters when we got back from Togo.

“We were divorced in 1986. We were 18 and 19 when we met. That tells you a little bit about our decision-making process.

She married a second time and they stayed together 20 years. She claims to be really good friends with both of her exes.

She’d already begun her publishing company by the time of that divorce and moved it from Chicago to Cookeville largely because she wanted to live near her daughter in Nashville without hovering over her from close-range.

“I was looking for a happy, artsy place and a place that had a university. Having a university means a town is alive and breathing.

“I chose Cookeville and I’m very happy I did.”

She also turned to creating “Fearless!” from songs she’d composed for her nightclub singing in Chicago and she began to write new tunes as well.

That led to her telephone tussles with Hal as well as their motel meeting. And now there’s nothing that will separate them.

Of course, they hope their massive investment in “Fearless!” ­­– offset they hope by Cookeville merchants /sponsors – will lead them to bigger cities, legitimate theater, professional casts and perhaps convince enough investors along the way to put up $11 million to mount the show on Broadway or Off-Broadway. That’s Hal’s estimate of the cost, by the way.

Hal knows the odds of them making back their investment aren’t necessarily favorable. But he thinks it will happen.

“We are convinced it is going to work,” says Hal, of his Broadway dreams. “Somebody’s got to step out and be Fearless!”

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