KANEOHE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Ronald E. Bright, a legendary Castle High School theater director who nurtured show business careers for dozens of students who went to Broadway and beyond and taught thousands of others to believe in themselves and love the performing arts, died Tuesday. He was 81.
Tuesday evening former students dropped by the Ronald E. Bright School of Performing Arts to remember the teacher many say they'll never forget. Some left flowers, others draped lei on the doors of the theater.
His family is not releasing details of his cause of death, but he was hospitalized in recent weeks at Castle Medical Center, not far from his Olomana home, friends said.
Bright, a teacher for 50 years, was the longtime director of the performing arts program at Castle High School in Kaneohe and founded the Castle Performing Arts Center.
Bright's theater program was so successful that all other specialty programs in the state were modeled after his. Castle's theater was named after him in 1994.
Many of Bright's students went on to professional theater careers on Broadway, and in national and international touring theater companies, including his son Michael Bright who performed in the national touring company of the musical Miss Saigon.
"On behalf of the Ronald E. Bright family, we are saddened to report that our father, Ronald E. Bright, has passed away today," his children Clarke Bright, Jodi Bright Stein and Michael Bright said in a statement. "On behalf of his entire ohana, we kindly request that our privacy be respected during this very difficult time."
Clarke Bright is the band master and director of the city's Royal Hawaiian Band.
As a teacher, Ron Bright's enthusiastic approach to theater, positive attitude and strong musical and directorial skills drew students from all over the island to Castle's program, which began decades ago with productions in a public school cafetorium.
"He gave us the feet to move forward, to succeed, to realize our dreams and to believe in ourselves," said Jodi Leong, Gov. David Ige's press secretary and a former student of Bright's at Castle High School who appeared in many productions under his directorship.
"Quite a few of his students have gone on to Broadway, but so many of his students are successful parents, teachers, business owners, entrepreneurs," said Leong, who played Maria in a 1980 production of West Side Story at what was then Castle's brand-new theater in 1980.
His students called him "Mr. B" and "Poppo."
"Poppo was a humble man and he would never take credit for any of his students' successes, but I owe my entire success to him," Leong said. "Poppo will live on in this community, in the theatre because of all the lives he touched and everything that he taught us we will perpetuate his lesson and that is to believe in yourself."
Even though he retired in 1998 as a public school teacher, Bright continued directing 13 musicals in recent years at Windward Community College's Paliku Theatre, staging sold-out shows such as "The Phantom of the Opera," "Miss Saigon" and "Les Miserables."
"He looked for shows to do that had heart and he worked with people of all ages and taught them the same thing: to find the heart of their character and to transfer that to the people in the audience," said Tom Holowach, the manager of Paliku Theatre. "A lot of people told me when they came to see shows directed by Ron Bright, they had never been so emotionally touched before."
In the early 1960s, fellow drama teacher Peggy Anne Siegmund heard about the productions Bright was putting on in his classroom and decided to check them out.
"This bundle of energy Ron Bright, Ronnie, known as Mr. B to everybody was all over the place doing everything and I thought, 'Wow this guy is terrific,'" Siegmund said.
Bright loved to sing and played the piano.
"I don't think I ever saw him sitting down at the piano. He was always standing. He had such wonderful energy it was infectious," said Siegmund, the retired drama teacher from Kaimuki High School.
"He's still with us. He created a legacy. He created a form of teaching of sharing a form of theater of love and education and training and inclusiveness. It's not going away. He's here. He's going to be here," Siegmund said.
Bright started teaching at Castle when he was 23 years old and he stepped in to start teaching drama a few years later, something that turned into his life-long calling.
"I love kids so much and I like to see them grow, so I just kind of stuck around until we can find someone to fill this position," Bright told Hawaii News Now in a 1999 interview.
Besides his children and seven grandchildren, he is survived by his wife Moira, who was often his creative and administrative partner mounting show after show.
Service information is pending.
(Allyson Blair contributed to this report)