CEDAR FALLS - Gary Kroeger has come home.
"Look! - I'm wearing a Fred MacMurray sweater," Kroeger points at his cardigan. Then he hums a few bars from the "My Three Sons" theme song and breaks into laughter. "Do I look like a Midwestern dad or what?"
Settling into the living room sofa of his home in a tree-lined neighborhood only eight blocks from where he grew up, Kroeger looks happy - "I'm in heaven" - and ready to discuss his decision to leave Los Angeles and move his family to Cedar Falls.
"That little guy," the actor/writer/producer says simply, smiling with pride as Christopher, 4, explains to visitors the noisy workings of his train engine alarm clock. Kroeger's wife, Leigh, steps in and distracts their son's show-and-tell and sits down next to her husband.
"Once I became a husband and daddy, L.A. became a kind of prison for me. Long commutes, long hours spent in traffic, crime, high taxes. I've had a good, solid career in Hollywood. It's been great, but I'm an Iowan. I couldn't be as nasty as I needed to be in the business," Kroeger explains.
Although they moved into the Colonial house less than a week earlier, it looks as if they've lived here for years. There's not a box in sight. Rugs are unrolled, pillows tossed and paintings, prints and family photographs hang on the walls.
"I came home last night, and Leigh was cooking a pot roast, my son was relaxing with his crayons, the dog curled up at his feet. It was like living a Norman Rockwell painting. Amazing," he says, smiling.
Earlier this month, Kroeger began his job as director of new media at The Mudd Group, a Cedar Falls marketing company. He will be writing, performing, producing and directing projects for the firm.
"This is the best organization … creative, talented and nice people who enjoy life. I have something to offer, too, like creativity, enthusiasm and a positive attitude. I believe in this community and the quality of life it has to offer. I sound like a walking commercial, but I think people take for granted what they have here," Kroeger says.
Jim Mudd Jr., president of The Mudd Group, describes the company as on an "enormous growth path, working in bigger markets in New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and we needed someone to conquer some of these accounts. Gary is very dynamic and creative and funny, and we think he's going to help us reach the next level."
One of Cedar Falls' most famous natives, Kroeger graduated from Northern University High School and Northwestern University in Chicago. He met Julia Louis-Dreyfus while a student at Northwestern, and they were founding members of the guerrilla theater group, Practical Theatre Co.
Kroeger spent three years on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1980s, writing and acting in comedy skits with Eddie Murphy, pal Louis-Dreyfus, Billy Crystal and Jim Belushi.
After SNL was canceled (briefly in 1985), Kroeger exited New York City for Hollywood, where he co-starred with George Hamilton in the CBS series "Spies." They became fast friends, and in the 1990s Kroeger produced, wrote and directed the daytime chatter, "George & Alana Show." He has appeared in numerous guest-starring roles in TV and films and hosted the stand-up comedy showcase,
In recent years, he hosted the syndicated version of "The Newlywed Game" and "Beat the Clock," and in 2002, starred in the NBC series, "Hidden Hills." He also anchored a Santa Monica TV news magazine.
After his first marriage ended in divorce in 1990, Kroeger dove into the fast-track L.A. lifestyle.
"It's great if you're single. There's night life, restaurants, plenty of women and lots to do. L.A. is very status-driven. I've been ushered to the best seat in the house when I've had a TV show and stopped at the door when I didn't. How's that for living a life?"
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While hosting "The Newlywed Show," he met Leigh. She'd done some performing, but was working as a waitress at the bar where Kroeger took the crew after taping shows. Admittedly, Kroeger hit on her.
"He was a good tipper," Leigh recalls, laughing. "But he grabbed my arm when he was making a comment, and that is a cardinal sin. He sent me flowers to apologize, and I told him that was inappropriate. He said, 'You hate me, don't you?' and I told him, 'I don't hate you. At the least, I'm indifferent.' But he was persistent and serious. We became good friends before we began dating, and then we got married."
Kroeger nods. "Somewhere between romance and a restraining order, we fell in love and bottom line, I won."
The couple ended up in a nice house behind a high fence in Sherman Oaks, and started an Italian restaurant in Simi Valley. Figaro, Figaro was a hit with food critics and customers alike, with Kroeger the front man, singing and entertaining, while Leigh ran the kitchen. Occasionally they'd sing duets for the crowd.
"It was a wonderful experience, and we really enjoyed it. But the cost of running a restaurant in California put us out of business - the high overhead, fees, taxes, workman's compensation fees, the cost of utilities. It killed us," he says.
In the meantime, Kroeger kept his hosting and acting gigs and found himself yearning for a place like Cedar Falls where he and Leigh could raise a family. Leigh, from Topeka, Kan., shared her husband's desire to return to Midwestern roots and sensibilities.
"I told Gary to go for it. When he believes in something, he goes after it wholeheartedly and with such great enthusiasm and as much energy as you've ever seen. He makes things happen," Leigh notes.
She has been accepted at the University of Northern Iowa and will enter in the spring as a biology major.
"We wanted someplace that nourishes the soul and the mind. I know there are days here in January and February when it's colder than comprehension. Actually, it gets hard living in a place like California where every day is a 'nice day,'" Kroeger laughs.
"Nice days can become relentless. I like seeing seasons change - leaves falling and snow that isn't manufactured on a set. In the Midwest, we appreciate good weather like it's some kind of religious revival."
The proverbial bulb over his head clicked: Why not Cedar Falls?
"I'd been back over the years for holidays, and it was like a trip through a living museum: 'Look, that's where I went to school. That's where I played … I rode my bike here … this is where we'd dig worms and sell to the bait shop.'"
His dad, Glenn, was an engineer at John Deere, and his mom, Donna, taught school. They moved to Arizona for their retirement, but continued to make trips home. Glenn died several years ago, and with her son returning to Iowa, Donna has decided to move back to Cedar Falls, too.
Since making his big move, Kroeger says his friends are a bit envious. In fact, a friend called Kroeger several days ago, stuck in his car in a traffic jam, complaining about rude, gesturing drivers and a yellow alert for smog, then asked Kroeger, "What are you doing?"
Kroeger laughs. "I told him the lady next door had just brought over fresh muffins to introduce herself. My son was riding his little bike in front of the house and it was a beautiful fall day. I could hear the jealousy in his voice."