Jana Robbins

Westmont Hilltop graduate Jana Robbins is a Tony-nominated producer for the revival of "Ragtime" and a recipient of the Jewish National Fund's prestigious "Tree of Life Award."

From age 4, Jana Robbins was chasing a dream.

Now that the Johnstown native has, so far, accomplished a 48-year career as a Broadway actress, producer and director – beginning with her first Broadway performance in 1968 – she’s still in pursuit.

“I think there’s always a dream that’s in front of you, the next role you want, the next thing you want to accomplish,” she said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know if there is ever a time in maybe any actor’s life where you can say you’ve made it. In acting, sometimes, you’re only as good as your last show.”

Still, there have certainly been milestones.

She landed her first solo at 6 as a Gene Kelly Studio of Dance student, and accepted leading roles in high school musicals – Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” her junior year and Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” her senior year at Westmont Hilltop High School. She credits Ella Marjorie Kaufman, who ran the high school’s music department and began a tradition of producing Broadway musicals there, as among her greatest influencers.

Kaufman saw Robbins’ potential, and so did Jana's parents, Edythe and Phillip Eisenberg.

“Mrs. Kaufman recognized my talent at a very early age and gave me leading roles,” Robbins said. “It made all the difference in my life to have her support and the support of my parents who sent me to the Gene Kelly Studio. They were behind me the whole way.”

When her father opened the Golden Key Restaurant and Lounge along Main Street in Johnstown in the early ‘60s, Robbins had another outlet: an elegant piano bar. She also spent her high school summers working in the chorus at the Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown.

By 21, she was watching her first show in New York City – “Man of La Mancha,” in Washington Square Park. Within a year, she was performing in that show on Broadway as Aldonza, opposite Jose Ferrer.

“I was only 21, and I was given the opportunity to work at the top level as I perceived it,” she said. “I knew very early on what I was meant to do. It wasn’t a job, a position. The kind of roles that I was always attracted to – like in ‘Man of La Mancha,’ the main song, ‘The Impossible Dream’ and in 'Chorus line,' ‘What I did for love’ – those are the kinds of roles that always attracted me.

“Someone goes to the theater and sits down to be entertained – but walks out changed or inspired to become one of their own dreams.”

That ideal is part of what drove her to open a producing company, Better World Productions.

“I did that in order to present theater and film entertainment that not only educates but inspires us to create a better world,” she said.

That’s what she continues to pursue as she produces, performs and teaches.

Her current projects include “The Jazz Age,” which she plans to take to London next, and “Roof of the World,” which premiered this spring in Kansas City. Judging by the “last show” standard, Robbins still is on top, earning glowing reviews with a show labeled as “a fresh, striking romance” and “an epic, sweeping story.”

She also remains on stage in New York and around the country with a show “I’m Still Here” – which can be viewed on www.YouTube.com.

Even with an extensive resumé in three fields – acting, producing, directing – Robbins still lists work at her high school alma matter among her accomplishments.

“Even though the major part of the industry looks at me know as the Broadway producer – and acting is hard because, as the CEO of the company and the producer, I need to be hands on – but the actor is still here,” she said. 

Kelly Urban is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. She can be reached at (814) 532-5073. Follow her on Twitter @KellyUrban25.