MARIETTA — Cara Polk knows the healing power of humor. She’ll also tell you that it’s never too late to follow your dream.
“Laughing is good medicine, especially when you’re burdened with grief,” said Polk, 76, a former model, novelist, Second City Theater and off-Broadway performer in her younger years. The Pennsylvania native married Pulitzer Prize recipient Jim Polk, a former reporter for the Washington Star who later worked for NBC News.
The couple relocated to Marietta in 1992 when he joined CNN. The award-winning correspondent died at home in July after a series of strokes. He was 83.
“I was by his side for all those years and we had a wonderful, if unconventional life together,” she said. “When Jim had his strokes, he required constant care. It was exhausting, but that’s what you do for the one you love. I’ve always had a passion for comedy. I love life, and I can find the humor in just about anything – unless it’s sad,” she said. “But humor got me through that really difficult time.”
She volunteered years ago at Cobb County’s Sope Creek Elementary School where her daughter attended. She created an art appreciation program and wrote 25 dramatic and humorous plays about core curriculum subjects to further engage the students.
“I would’ve been bored to tears just being a room mother,” she said.
In the last months of her husband’s life, she hired Carly Freeman, a young teacher who was working temporarily as an in-home caregiver.
“Carly was delightful and a great help for both myself and Jim. Carly wanted to be a stand-up comic. Her humor helped me get through a very rough time, caring for Jim. Humor and music lighten the spirit, and even if you find something bittersweet, if it has a humorous edge, it’s like a stairway away from your mourning.”
Months after her husband’s memorial service, Cara Polk visited the Delray Diner on Delk Road, only a few minutes from her East Cobb home. Ever curious, she opened a side door that led to a large back room with curtains and a stage.
“It was a perfect venue for a dinner theater, and I knew it was a place I had to play. It had hardwood floors and great acoustics, and it was perfect for the plays and comedy routines I always wanted to produce.”
Polk negotiated with the diner’s owners, Tom and George Koutina, and arranged for the debut of the Delray Playhouse in the back room to showcase improvisation theater, short plays and concerts.
Dressed as Morticia Addams from the television comedy “The Addams Family,” Polk and a small cast of actors performed earlier in November for an intimate audience with an improvisational comedy titled “Wednesday’s Wedding,” including her aspiring comic friend Carly Freeman. Polk even coaxed a few customers from the diner to take a part in the unscripted comedy.
“I was just having dinner when she walked over to me and asked if I’d like to do a comedy sketch for her show, and I said ‘Sure, that sounds like fun,” mused Nathan Williams, from New York. Viktoria Snee, who works in the diner’s bakery, agreed to join the make-it-up-as-you-go performance.
“Miss Cara,” as she prefers to be addressed, broke into songs mid-performance and kept the small audience, who never knew what might come next, entertained and engaged.
“I was born to entertain. My whole goal was to cheer people up. It’s my gift. The playhouse is realizing a dream for me. It’s having my own stage and a place to experiment.”
She hopes to produce more performances in the months ahead.
“I’d really love to meet other aspiring actors in the area who want to do improv comedy,” she said.
George Koutina, co-owner of the diner, said his family wants to help Polk live her dream of producing plays.
“We want to provide Miss Cara the opportunity to do what she’s always loved to do. She’s become part of our family.”
After her husband died, a relative suggested Polk relocate to an assisted living community in California.
“I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ There’s still tread on my tires. Widows need projects to stay busy, and I have too much to live for here. The Delray Playhouse has amazing potential, and I have plays to write and songs to sing,” she said. “It’s never too late to follow your dream. I guess I’m coming into my own now, and it’s about time. I can sing again.”
Polk plans to launch the Rosebud Fund, a non-profit organization to provide fellowships for journalism students interested in investigative reporting. Proceeds from her performances will fund the scholarships, she said.
“Jim was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Watergate scandal. He won an Emmy Award in 1996 for CNN’s coverage of the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in which 168 people were killed. He was a longtime member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization, and digging for stories was his passion,” she said.
Always playing to the theatrical, the fund was named for the final words spoken by Charles Kane, the fictional newspaper magnate in the 1941 film “Citizen Kane,” and it will help aspiring journalists polish their education in the journalism profession, she said. “Creating this fund blends both our passions.”