By Sherri Hill
Real estate mogul and television personality Donald Trump is many things to many people. But to three former WCSU students, Trump is “boss.”
Tom Trocola, Justin Rosini and Mike Hartel each were hired recently to work on Trump’s popular television show “Celebrity Apprentice.” In addition to their growing careers in the entertainment industry, they had something else in common — all three attended Western Connecticut State University. Hartel and Rosini were communications/theatre arts majors who knew each other as students (Hartel graduated in 1998; Rosini attended from 1997-2003). Trocola graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in Communication and a minor in theatre arts.
Trocola, of Danbury; Rosini, of Sharon; and Hartel, of Westport, all perform different tasks on the show, but the presence of three former WCSU students on the crew sums up something the theatre arts department has been proclaiming for years: Our proximity to New York City gives us the advantage of its vast resources and provides ample opportunities for our students to perfect their craft.
But it’s impossible to break into the highly competitive job market in theatre or television, right?
Not so, says Trocola.
“While in college I got my first job on the set of ‘The Private Lives of Pippa Lee’ as an intern/production assistant (PA) because of a reference from Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Liz Popiel,” Trocola says. “Because of that experience, I worked for ‘Project Runway,’ ‘Top Chef,’ ‘Make Me a Supermodel,’ and a Donna Karen shoot, ‘Urban Zen.’ After graduation, I worked for the Connecticut Film Festival, in part because I had previously worked on the Tribeca Film Festival due to the connections of Professor of Theatre Arts Sal Trapani and another former WCSU theatre arts student, Rema Sayegh.
“Then I got an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., to work on ‘Real World DC’ in the art department as a production assistant,” Trocola says. “That turned into a full-time PA job, which was followed by work on a pilot in Connecticut and a few days of work on ‘Real Housewives of New York.’ I moved to New York City in January 2010 and worked as the office PA on ‘Bethenny Getting Married,’ as an executive assistant on ‘Project Runway,’ and now as the task coordinator for ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’”
Rosini, who has been working as a location scout and location manager for feature films and television shows in New York City since 2004, has an impressive resume that also started as soon as he left WCSU. It includes work on the films “Spider-Man 3,” “American Gangster” and “For Colored Girls,” and the television series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “White Collar” and “Cupid.”
Rosini, 32, one of two assistant location managers for “Celebrity Apprentice,” says his education prepared him for a career in the entertainment industry.
“WCSU set me up with a network of like-minded individuals who are also working in the field,” he says. “I met Mike Hartel, who gave me my first job in the entertainment business, at WCSU, and I continue to see people from the university in New York City who are working in the industry.”
Hartel has had a similarly successful employment history since he transferred from Sacred Heart to pursue a theatre arts degree at Western in 1995.
“I got an actor’s equity stage managing job the day I finished college,” he says. “I made $390 a week before taxes … big time!”
From there, Hartel has handled location scouting and location management for multiple TV series including “Sex and the City,” “Cashmere Mafia” and “Ugly Betty.” “Revolutionary Road,” “War of the Worlds” and “National Treasure” are just a few of the more than a dozen films on which he has worked.
Hartel credits WestConn’s theatre faculty and fellow alumni with the progress he’s made in his career.
“The professors at Western are all working actor/director/producer types so it gave me the discipline and understanding to navigate a truly crazy business that I would never have understood otherwise,” he says. “I don’t know anyone that had access to as much performance and rehearsal time as I did. Most students get swallowed up in a giant university machine but the WCSU theatre program was the right size to let everyone have successes and failures before getting kicked out of the nest. And our alumni all seem to stay working and we keep each other working.”
The 40-year-old, who is the location manager for “Celebrity Apprentice,” said something he learned nearly 15 years ago at WCSU rang true during taping of the high-profile reality-TV show with the boss known for the dramatic way he fires people.
“It’s going to sound silly, but (Professor Emeritus of Communications and Theatre Arts) Bill Walton had a policy of ‘on-time is late in this business’ and boy was he right,” Hartel explains. “People get fired for being late all the time … it just happened on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ this season!”
Trocola agreed that what he learned at Western has served him well.
“People may think that going to a small university could be a hindrance, but the experience I gained has trumped that ten-fold,” he says. “I continue to work on show after show and have had many different jobs and opportunities. WCSU never handed me anything, but gave me the tools that I was able to use to succeed. Those who go to an Ivy League school can flash their fancy degree, but after having worked with someone from an Ivy League school I can say that all it gave this person was something to brag about during lunch break.”
All three former students cite their experiences representing the university at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, as the most memorable in their theatre careers. Not a bad resume-builder, either.
Once “Celebrity Apprentice” wraps, Trocola hopes to move on to producing television shows. Rosini’s goals include producing films or TV shows and acting. Hartel sees work as a production manager in the near term, but hopes to direct eventually. There’s no question that all of them will be busy and working in the industry.
Trump, the trio’s most recent employer, has been quoted as saying, “I'm a bit of a P.T. Barnum. I make stars out of everyone.” In the case of Trocola, Hartel and Rosini, he’ll have to share some of the credit with WestConn.