On-stage therapy: City native brings life story back home

Courtesy photos Tom Sweitzer, a former Altoona resident, performs in a scene from his autobiographical, one-man show “Meatballs & Music,” showing at 3 p.m. July 3 at The Church in the Middle of the Block, 217 Fifth Ave.

By Patt Keith


Former Altoonan Tom Sweitzer returns to familiar surroundings to present the one-man show “Meatballs and Music” at 3 p.m. Sunday, July 3 at The Church in the Middle of the Block Cultural Resource Center at 217 Fifth Ave., for the first official performance after renovations.

The performance stars Sweitzer in an autobiographical show that depicts his youth in Altoona and how a Sunday school teacher introduced him to the lifesaving grace of God and music.

First presented in February 2020, the pandemic stalled the show’s round of theater festivals, but has been revised and revived, Sweitzer said. The show is coming back to Altoona to officially open the renovated Sweitzer Theater, which organizers have named for Sweitzer in honor of his support and dedication in creating a performance space at the former Second United Brethren Church.

Tickets for “Meatballs & Music” will go on sale for $15 per person at 2:15 p.m. — 45 minutes prior to the performance, said Christopher Cook, executive director of the cultural center. Due to its mature themes, the show is recommended for adults only. For more information visit www.tomsweitzer.com.

The one-man show is a preview of the revised work prior to its run in the Fringe Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., set for July 16-24 and a three-week run in August at the INDY Festival in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Today, Sweitzer, 50, is an accomplished music therapist, writer and composer in Virginia. Sweitzer, who married his husband, Andres Uribe, on June 11, said the COVID-19 pandemic upended his plans for “Meatballs & Music,” after its debut in February 2020 in Altoona.

He performed the show twice more before the world shut down.

In July 2020, Sweitzer found himself hospitalized with the virus and has spent the intervening months battling long-COVID symptoms of neurological and memory problems, he said during a phone conversation with the Mirror.

Sweitzer hasn’t let his health challenges slow him down. Throughout it all, he continued to help others through his music therapy practice, used the COVID intermission to revise his one-man show, created an online long-COVID support group, met, fell in love and married. He now is working on his first novel, a fictional work about love, healing and resilience.

The revised “Meatballs and Music,” is 15 minutes leaner, but has 950 lines Sweitzer has had to re-memorize.

“It’s a marathon for my brain,” he said. “I will not let long COVID get me and stop me. I think it’s a better show because I’ve had two years to work it out. It’s also a personal goal (to perform it) again. It’s an amazing workshop for my brain.”

The upcoming festivals allow Sweitzer to pick up the threads severed by the pandemic and revisit his goal of having the show seen by a wider audience. Producers and theater representatives attend these festivals to evaluate new works and see if they want to give a work a performance home in 2023.

“I want to get it somewhere so more people can experience it. Of course, the dream is to have it on Broadway or off, off Broadway, but I think the show also has a bigger potential, he said. “It could be tied to a conference about mental health, healing and forgiveness that would tour the entire world. Maybe we take it to institutions and places and talk about healing and forgiveness. It’d be like a platform or workshop — like a touring TED talk.”

The show’s inception came after Sweitzer spent “years” in therapy to overcome the wounds inflicted by an unstable and abusive home life as his mother suffered severe health issues that would eventually take her life. His father had schizophrenia.

At age 8, he followed the music emanating from the neighborhood church and found Erdean, the Sunday school teacher, God’s acceptance and love and music.

That church, The Church in the Middle of the Block, became his refuge and creative outlet as he became involved in music and theater. He was instrumental and worked with John Rita and his friend Cook in turning the space into a community cultural center. Rita remains involved as artistic director and Cook assumed the role of executive director Jan. 1.

“He was the first person that really brought theater to the church,” Cook said. “Before that it was an art studio. Then, in 1995 he started producing and performing shows there. He has spearheaded it.”

Sweitzer said he was touched by the theater’s renaming.

“The naming of the space is very sweet of them (to do),” Sweitzer said. “I’m totally honored as I’m close to all the people who have brought it back to life. It’s almost too much of an honor, but I will take it. I don’t really feel like I deserve it, but I’ve accepted it just as I’ve learned to accept love into my life.”

Writing and performing in “Meatballs and Music,” he said, marked a turning point in his forgiveness and reconciliation journey. He’d reached a level of acceptance with his traumatic childhood, reconciled with his father before his death and achieved self-acceptance.

“It took being vulnerable and putting my story out there so that I could get to the next space in my life,” Sweitzer said. “I’m finally in a place in my life where I am completely who I am and I am proud of it. I’m not a flag-waving human being, but to have lived where you can’t be 100% whole and who you are is very taxing. These last few years have been a revelation for me.”

Performing the show and surviving his near-fatal bout with COVID opened his heart and path to meet his future husband — first virtually as he recuperated and then in person when he no longer tested positive.

“The moment we met, I felt it. It’s the most mature and beautiful and non-dramatic and accessible and fulfilling relationship I’ve ever had,” Cook said.

As he healed into this version of himself, The Church in the Middle of the Block was undergoing its own transformation through a $100,000 renovation. Improvements include custom-made heavy draping to make the space more into a black box theater; reupholstered pew seating, air conditioning and the creation of stage escape stairs so actors can exit from either side of the stage without entering the audience space, Cook said.

The improvements will help Cook and The Church in the Middle of the Block toward expanding the use of the 125-seat community arts venue as it approaches its 30th anniversary in 2023.

If you go

What: “Meatballs & Music”

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, July 3

Where: The Church in the Middle of the Block Cultural Resource Center,

217 Fifth Ave., Altoona

Tickets: $15 per person, on sale at 2:15 p.m., 45 minutes before the



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