Evanston Actors Share Their Secrets to a Good Marriage

Roger Mueller and Jill Shellabarger in Drury Lane's "Bye Bye Birdie"

After 37 years of marriage, four kids and a mortgage, longtime Evanston actors Jill Shellabarger and Roger Mueller still feel the heat.

“We are each other’s biggest fans,” says Shellabarger. “We respect each other’s artistry; we don’t talk shop a lot, but we can go to each other when we are wrestling with a part.”

“The longer you hang around a person, you learn to trust not just one thing, but everything about the person you love,” adds Mueller. And they trust each other implicitly.

Their bond dates back to 1972, when they first met as theater majors at Northwestern University. Seven years of dating and many roles, on stage and off, followed. Mueller graduated first, and after doing summer stock together — where they played Captain and Maria Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” — he won his first professional Chicago stage role in the great Frank Galati’s adaptation and production of “Miss Lonelyhearts.”

When Shellabarger graduated in 1974, she did some postgraduate study in Pennsylvania, but returned to Chicago … and Mueller. On a friend’s suggestion, she auditioned with agencies to do commercial work, which proved very successful for her. “Our agent was a wonderful woman who took me under her wing,” says Shellabarger. “We both got established in Chicago and never went anywhere else.”

Kids soon followed — first twins Matthew and Abby, then Jessie and Andrew — and Shellabarger chose to stay home with them (though she did continue to do some voiceover work). It’s a choice that Mueller is still in awe of.

“Jill took a chunk out of her life and devoted it to raise the kids,” he says. “I can’t look at her and not be grateful for everything that has come to be; the people who are around because of her. There’s no end to the gratitude.”

And what kids they have raised — all working actors, like their parents. Abby is currently starring in the national touring company of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical;” Jessie won a Tony Award for originating that same role on Broadway and is soon to open and star there in “Waitress”(ed. note: I saw it in Boston last summer and it’s fantastic); Matt opens this month in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” at Munster’s Theatre at the Center, and recently appeared with Andrew in Drury Lane’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

“One of life’s great joys is having your children follow in your footsteps,” says Shellabarger. It’s become the family business, but Mueller and Shellabarger never intended it that way. The kids weren’t encouraged to do theater until high school at ETHS, because their parents wanted them to experience more of life than just the stage. But when there’s that much talent in the gene pool, sometimes it’s a foregone conclusion.

Over the years, Mueller and Shellabarger have appeared together on stage a number of times, in both plays and musicals. One of their favorite pairings (aside from the Von Trapps, of course) was playing John and Abigail Adams in “1776” back in 2000; they are currently appearing through March 13 in Drury Lane’s rollicking production of “Bye Bye Birdie” as the mayor and his star-struck wife, who faints every time the Elvis-like Conrad Birdie swivels his hips on stage. Mueller is there to catch her on stage at every performance.

So how do they keep things fresh after 37 years? Laughter is a large part of it.

“He’s a very, very funny person,” says Shellabarger. “We entertain each other. I think we appreciate each other. And being in a long marriage, because of all the things you go through, seeing one another rise to the challenge is inspiring and makes you fall back in love with them all over again.”

Both of them embrace the spiritual. “God means a lot to both of us,” shares Mueller. “There’s no other place these miraculous things could come from that have been happening to us. We have such gratitude for that.”

And then there’s the element of surprise. “I never know what he’s going to look like at any given time,” laughs Shellabarger. “He just played Santa in ‘Elf’ up at the Marriott (Lincolnshire) with this gorgeous full white beard…”

It’s clear from spending time with this charming couple that they still adore each other, on stage and off.

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