This Alum Was Among the First Full-Time Male Students at MMC. What Did He Experience?

Peter De La Cruz ’86 remembers the suggestion that changed his life—and earned him a spot in MMC history. He was a senior and promising theatre student at New York City’s Julia Richman High School, weighing his options for the future, when his drama coach pulled him aside. “He said, ‘Listen, Marymount Manhattan is going co-ed, and you should apply,” De La Cruz recalled. “He told me I would learn a lot about theatre and have incredible opportunities there, so I took his advice.”

The year was 1981, and though MMC had been admitting male students, they typically attended evening class sessions and occupied a separate world from the female students who attended during the day. “We had a sizeable cohort of men when I arrived at the College, but most came in at 5:30 p.m.,” said Mary Fleischer, Ph.D., a Theatre Arts professor who began at the College in 1978. In fact, Fleischer said, it was a running joke among some faculty that they had never met the male students who appeared at graduation.

That began to change in the years after the opening of the Nugent building, which brought the creation of learning centers for academic departments as well as a professionally equipped theatre, enabling the College to broaden its curriculum. “The College went under an incredible sea change,” Fleischer said. “There was a real shift in perspective about who we could be as an institution.” MMC began offering BFA degrees in Acting and Dance for the first time and, by the early 1980s, started actively recruiting male students for its programs.

De La Cruz was among the first handfuls of male students who would join the Theatre department, putting MMC on track to look more like the institution it is today. And, as his high school drama coach suggested, it was an extraordinary time.

As one of just a few male students, he often drew stares. “My first day on campus, people watched me like I was a celebrity,” he said. “It was a weird feeling because you knew you weren’t anyone special, but a lot of the female students had gone to all-women’s Catholic schools, so it was an adjustment for them.”

Still, for De La Cruz, MMC brought the opportunities he’d longed for. He quickly snapped up roles in Theatre productions, including Ah, Wilderness!, The Mikado, and Little Mary Sunshine. “Because there were so few male students, the Acting department would say, ‘Peter, this normally doesn’t happen freshman year, but we need you for a Main Stage production,’” he said. “And, of course, I said yes right away.”

De La Cruz is the son of the award-winning Puerto Rican actress Martha De La Cruz, who starred in gritty urban films and groundbreaking plays by Spanish-language theatre companies in the 70s and 80s. Studying her, he learned to prize adaptability as a performer. “My mother was very versatile, and I picked that up from her,” he said. MMC would help him further hone that skill.

In addition to roles in plays and musicals, he starred in a Dance production in the Great Hall. And, after he expressed an interest in Shakespeare, one of his favorite professors, Sister Dymphna Leonard, who held dual appointments in the English and Theatre departments and also started the College’s Theatre for Children program, would invite him to perform the Bard’s monologues in her classes.

De La Cruz was among the first handfuls of male students who would join the Theatre department, putting MMC on track to look more like the institution it is today. 

But not everyone was as happy to see new male faces in the classroom. De La Cruz remembers a French teacher who seemed put off by his presence. After he dropped her course, she joked with his classmates that she would no longer have to worry about teaching the masculine form.

Today, De La Cruz, who works as a voice actor and runs his own talent agency, said the relationships he made at MMC hold a special place in his heart. That includes his bond with Sister Leonard; though she passed away in 1992, he often invokes her memory. “She really believed in me,” he said. “And to this day, when I’m saying my prayers and I’m feeling a little down about an audition, I talk to her because I know her spirit’s here just smiling at me.”

He’s hoping to reunite with beloved classmates, like Dan Smith ’85, who went on to become a chef and cohost of a cooking show on the Food Network, Party Line with The Hearty Boys. “At MMC, male students like us would see each other in the lounge and sort of gravitate towards each other,” De La Cruz said.

His list of cherished MMC relationships also includes his best friend of more than 40 years, Sharon Letalon ’86, whom he met in Dance class—back when he had a head full of hair, and she was a Business major with a love for sports. “She was elegant but also tough, like my mom,” he said. “She took me under her wing and really took care of me.”

From their early days at MMC, the two built a strong foundation that would carry them through pivotal moments. De La Cruz was there for the birth of Letalon’s children, and Letalon was by De La Cruz’s side after the death of his partner, the actor Jeff Loeffelholz, in 2018.

Loeffelholz was the last original cast member to star in the Broadway revival of Chicago and died by suicide after the show’s director criticized his performance and suggested he move on from the production. His death made national news, prompting discussions about bullying and mental health in theatre.

With Loeffelholz woven into every aspect of De La Cruz’s life—the two had built a home and business together, running a chocolate shop in Rockefeller Center for more than 30 years—the loss was immense. “We had a soul connection,” De La Cruz said.

At the time, Letalon had just returned to New York after spending several years in Florida. Seeing her at the funeral helped calm De La Cruz. “She brought me back 30 years to where I was in the beginning. And I didn’t think a person, just by looking at them, could do that when you felt so lost about what your future would be,” De La Cruz said.

Letalon also helped De La Cruz launch The Jeff Loeffelholz IRIS Foundation, which aims to reduce the stigma of mental illness and support artists who are the victims of bullying or struggling with mental health.

“Peter created The Jeff Loeffelholz Iris Foundation to be a beacon of light for the next generation of performers,” Letalon said. “Coming out of this tragedy, his commitment to young performing artists entering the industry has become even stronger.”

De La Cruz is working to spread the word about the foundation and looking forward to new adventures with Letalon, who is not only his friend but now his roommate; they moved in together after Loeffelholz’s death. “That decision made all the difference in transitioning to my new life,” he said.

Indeed, at their midtown apartment, he finds himself enveloped in love, humor, and memories, along with one more thing: hope. “The possibility of what [Sharon and I] are going to share in the future is very exciting,” he said.

Published: January 31, 2024