Over 23 years, some 20,000 Seattle-area kids auditioned for Jimmy Nixon and his Broadway Bound theater program.
That meant Nixon listening to countless renditions of “Tomorrow.” Waiting patiently while shy kids were coaxed from their parents’ sides to stand in front of his table to recite a nursery rhyme, or sing in a near-whisper.
Nixon never tired of it. Every hopeful was treated like a star. And everyone got a part.
“He would listen to the same songs, over and over,” said Nixon’s daughter, Ryah. “No doubt, he listened to some really passionate, but raw performances. But he would make every kid feel like, ‘Oh, my God! You just knocked it out of the park!'”
Nixon, who started the after-school and summer theater program to nurture his daughter’s love of performance, and grew it into a staple of Seattle’s arts community that launched hundreds of young actors, died May 10 from complications following what had been minor cancer surgery. He was 61.
A celebration of Nixon’s life will be held June 12 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. A reception will begin at noon, with the memorial starting at 1:15 p.m.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help pay for funeral costs. Nixon’s death was so unexpected he wasn’t able to organize his affairs, according to friend Jennifer Maher, who set up the fund. The money raised will help Ryah, 32, and her brother, Xan, 29, pay for whatever is needed until things are sorted out.
Ryah Nixon is an actress living in New York — fulfilling a lifelong dream that her father encouraged until his death with daily phone calls and text messages. Xan Nixon is a substitute teacher for special-needs students in the Seattle school district, who inherited his father’s gift with children and his love of teaching.
“No matter if the kid was the star or standing in the back row, playing a tree, my dad made every single person feel like they were the most important person on that stage,” Ryah Nixon said. “He would make sure he knew everyone’s name. He would say, ‘I’m watching you! Let me see! Come alive!'”
Kids came to the program eager to be in the spotlight, but there were also those who felt left out, or didn’t know where they belonged, Ryah Nixon said. Her father’s gift was bringing them out of their shells with his energy and encouragement.
And if they didn’t continue acting, they continued to support the arts.
“Broadway Bound was a foundation for a love of the arts,” Ryah Nixon said. “It taught you skills. How to speak in public, how to introduce yourself and claim some space in the world and not apologize for it.”
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, Jimmy Nixon was a high-school football star who studied acting with Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio and dance with Twyla Tharp. An original member of the American Theatre of Actors, he won awards for his work Off-Broadway before he moved to Los Angeles, where he guest-starred on TV shows such as “Dragnet,” “Adam 12” and “The Fugitive,” and later worked as a writer for King World Productions.
He moved his family to Seattle in 1996 and, after learning there were no after-school theater programs at his daughter’s elementary school, he launched his own. Broadway Bound started in the basement of the Fremont Baptist Church and grew bigger every year, drawing kids from the city’s most prominent families and from the most underserved.
In 2007, Nixon brought the Broadway Bound program to neighborhoods in South Seattle in a partnership with Seattle Public Schools. He oversaw a production of “Dreamgirls” and several other productions at the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Center at Rainier Beach High School.
Broadway Bound shares a University District building with the Academy for Precision Learning (APL), where neurodiverse and neurotypical students study together. Nine years ago, Broadway Bound partnered with APL, and Nixon forged a close friendship with executive director Jennifer Annable.
“What is lost here is a man with an incredible gift to connect and inspire everyone around him,” Annable said. “The work that he did in the musical theater was life-changing for so many kids.”
They include Annable’s granddaughter, Tatum Poirrier, 11, a fifth grader at APL who has appeared in 11 Broadway Bound productions as well as seven area shows, including The 5th Avenue Theatre’s “The Sound of Music,” where she once lost a shoe onstage.
“I remembered that Jimmy would just say ‘The show must go on,’ and I finished with one shoe,” Tatum said.
Tatum visited Nixon in the weeks before his death, giving him pedicures and singing to him.
“Jimmy was like my best, best friend to me,” she said. “And it’s sad that we had to say goodbye. But if he saw us crying now, he would say, ‘Come on, guys.'”
Many Broadway Bound students went on to enter theater programs at celebrated schools such as Carnegie Mellon University and New York University, and to launch professional careers. Nick Robinson, star of the 2018 feature film “Love, Simon” and 2015’s “Jurassic World,” attended Broadway Bound, as did Solea Pfeiffer, who was part of the first national tour of “Hamilton.”
Away from the stage, Nixon was known for his spaghetti feeds and jokes, for heading back to New York City to see a rush of plays and photo-bombing stars like John Krasinski and posting those images on Facebook.
Ryah Nixon remembered walking through University Village with her father around the holiday season and being stopped every few feet by current and former members of Broadway Bound.
“It was like walking around the Hollywood Strip with Brad Pitt,” she said. “I mean, like, every five steps. ‘Jimmy!’ ‘Hi, sweetie!’ ‘Oh, my God, you’re in college now!’ Everyone in Seattle knows the guy. It’s crazy.”
In recent days, many of those same people thanked Ryah and Xan Nixon for sharing their father with them.
“Everyone felt this … I almost want to say ownership,” she said. “But there was never a day we felt neglected.”
She is determined that the June 12 memorial will be a celebration, rather than a mournful dirge.
“We want it to be bright and colorful,” she said. “We want music and more of a show.”
And everyone, she said, will have a part.