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The Circus of Life: From Opera to Warner Bros.

Kati Roberts (’01)

Kati Roberts (’01) tumbled into her dream job unexpectedly. As Manager of Live Entertainment with Warner Bros. Consumer Products’ Themed Entertainment department, she never imagined that she would find herself working in the world of amusement parks. She travels around the globe overseeing the brand management of popular themed entertainment offerings and works with high-profile brands from Harry Potter and DC Superheroes to Looney Tunes and Scooby-Doo. Her travels regularly take her from her home in Los Angeles to London and Asia. How she landed in her current job from being a voice major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was part luck and part destiny.

Roberts grew up in the sleepy town of Peru, Indiana, also known as the “Circus Capital of the World,” home to the second largest American circus—the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus—and, currently, produces the Peru Amateur Circus Festival, which is an annual summer event celebrating Peru’s rich circus heritage. Peru is also the home of the International Circus Hall of Fame which is situated on the old Peru Winter Quarters, a national historical landmark, where circuses of the past wintered until they left in the spring for a new circus season. As a child, Roberts’ years were filled with all sorts of entertaining from amateur circus performances to civic theatre productions.

Saying that music is a part of Roberts’ life is an understatement. She is third cousin to the legendary American songwriter, Cole Porter. Roberts learned the piano at such a young age, she can’t recall ever not being able to read music, and in 7th grade, she joined the band and learned saxophone. Throughout her childhood, Roberts sang in choral groups, performed en pointe in ballet recitals and participated in singing and saxophone competitions. Her father, Daniel Roberts, Cole Porter’s second cousin, is a retired general surgeon and a jazz trombonist. Her mother, Ingeborg Roberts, is a painter, clothing designer, and journalist who used to work with the BBC. Roberts’ younger brother, Ward Roberts, is now a filmmaker and actor in Los Angeles. When in late elementary school Roberts and her brother first began to perform with the Peru Amateur Circus, their father joined the Circus City Festival Band so that he could watch his kids perform and participate more actively in the town’s historic circus festivities.

Coming from an artistic family, her parents wholeheartedly encouraged her to pursue a career in music. Roberts’ heart was in musical theatre, but she felt that she needed strong fundamentals and decided to pursue a classical music training. “There is a purity about classical voice training—it’s just you,” she says. “There is no amplification, there is nothing to carry around and nothing to plug in.” Her choir director, Tom Gustin, who was influential in making the decision to pursue music as a career, suggested she pursue music at the collegiate level. After earning her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin, Roberts was accepted into SFCM’s Master of Music degree program, studying voice with Pam Fry. Midway through the degree program at SFCM, Roberts had begun to feel that the opera career track was not for her.

After graduating, Roberts began exploring other music outlets outside of classical music and took some improv and acting classes at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She also joined a funk band as a backing singer and used her musical foundation to explore other genres while she began to write original songs.

In 2005, Roberts moved to Los Angeles. There, she continued to compose original songs and founded an all-female trad jazz band, The Belles of Bourbon Street, which played at various venues in and around Hollywood from 2005 to 2009. During that time, she found various jobs in production (script supervisor, film scheduling, stage managing, etc.).

Soon after, Roberts came upon a three-month stint as a Production Coordinator at Thinkwell Group. Not knowing much about Thinkwell, she applied, and discovered the world of theme park production. After she landed the interim position, Thinkwell immediately hired her for a full-time position, and she continued to work there for seven more years. She became integral to the team that built “The Making of Harry Potter” attraction at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London.

Taking a leap of faith, she left her job to rethink her future and career. Nearly simultaneous with her departure from Thinkwell, Warner Bros. Consumer Products (WBCP) was looking for someone to help oversee brand management for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal parks in Orlando, Japan, and Hollywood. Roberts landed the three-year contract. After great success with the Harry Potter projects, Roberts is now full-time at WBCP, overseeing all licensed Live Entertainment such as "Bugs Bunny at the Symphony,” "Harry Potter Film Concert Series,” Scooby-Doo touring stage shows, as well as all in-park, live entertainment components for their theme park licensees which include Six Flags, WB Movie World Australia, and Universal, among others. She also gleefully mentions working on the seasonal offerings like Universal’s “Halloween Horror Nights" events.

Roberts feels that it was her music studies that led her to success in her career. “So many musicians feel guilty for putting so much time into their training and not ‘making it’ as a performer—and they shouldn’t,” she says. Roberts draws upon her skills as a trained musician and performer continuously at work. “The study of singing and live performance brought me an awareness,” she says. “I know how to stay focused in a generous way, which opens me up to the most unexpected opportunities—like a career in themed entertainment.” Her advice to young graduates, or those at a career impasse: “Don’t let yourself get distracted by other people’s expectations. Whatever passion you have, and whichever path you forge is your own … everyone else is lucky just to get a glimpse.”

Roberts says that she will be off to Japan before flying to New Orleans for French Quarter Fest to sit in on banjo with her father’s trad jazz band, the Swampwater Stompers, a group he formed from fellow players in the Peru Circus City Festival Band nearly three decades ago. Roberts clearly hasn’t stopped her musical adventures. Music, with its myriad capacities, appears to be a constant in her life, both professionally and personally.

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