Acclaimed alumni to visit Columbia

By Ivana Hester

With the fifth annual Alumni Weekend right around the corner Sept. 27–30, students and parents’ will have the opportunity to meet some of Columbia’s successful graduates and former students.

Highlighted events include a  Sept. 29 writing panel featuring some of Columbia’s most accomplished alumni. Dino Stamatopoulos, Art Baltazar and Mark Protosevich are all working in careers they dreamt of as kids.

Stamatopoulos, known for his role as Starburns in NBC’s sitcom “Community,” which he also wrote for, began his career while attending Columbia in 1987. During those early years, he wrote and starred in a comedy act with Andy Dick, also an alumnus. He later had a hand in writing and producing a number of shows, including “The Ben Stiller Show,” “TV Funhouse” and “Moral Orel.”

Baltazar is a comic guru and two-time Eisner Award winner  for comics, who graduated in 1992. He is most known for the comic “Tiny Titans,” which he creates in his art studio, Electric Milk Creations. He currently produces work for DC Comics, Disney and Mattel.

Protosevich is a Hollywood screenwriter and producer who has worked on “The Cell,” “I Am Legend” and “Thor.” After graduating in 1983, he taught at the college for four years.

The Chronicle talked with these alumni to find out how their time at Columbia helped prepare them for their careers and what advice they have for current students.

The Chronicle: Why did you go into writing?

Dino Stamatopoulos: My dad always wanted to be a writer. He was from Greece, and he had all these aspirations to come to America and be a filmmaker and a writer. Instead, he began a family and became a commercial artist for the Chicago Sun-Times. I think he instilled those artistic goals in me and encouraged me in writing and filmmaking.

Art Baltazar: When I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I knew to be a cartoonist I had to write my own jokes and my own stories. I’ve been writing for as long as I have been drawing, but it really picked up in high school.

What were your experiences at Columbia like?

AB: Columbia was part of what I had to do to get to the next level. Since I had to work to pay for school, I didn’t get to hang around too much. I would go to class and go home, or go to class and go to work. I never experienced the college campus.

When I was back at Columbia with the alumni, I was really impressed with the way it feels like a community now. When I was there, it didn’t feel that way.

Mark Protosevich: I had a great experience at Columbia. I went there right after high school, and it was like a breath of fresh air, especially in terms of meeting like-minded people who were as passionate about movies as I was. It really was a profound experience for me because it was very unlike my high school, and it was terrific to meet other people who had the same interests.

What topics are you looking forward to discussing on  the panel?

AB: I’m going to talk about writing styles [to let people know] that there is really no correct way to write. Writing is just writing. I’m going to talk about the way I write because I don’t write traditionally. The students need to hear from people [who graduated] from Columbia and are working in their fields. We know the latest of how things are done.

MP: I’m actually most curious to hear from other people. I have been in the business for a long time, and whatever information I could provide that might help someone is my biggest priority.

What advice do you have for current students?

DS: The only way to keep working at something is to love doing it. I loved writing, and I accumulated a large chunk of writing experience while I was at Columbia. Things fell into my lap after that. I had a lot of samples and a lot of people who liked my writing, which helped to spread it around.

AB: Stay focused, stay in school, get your degree, but learn as much as you can and ask all kinds of questions while you’re there. Learn digital and traditional art.

Learn about culture and the history of art. Especially as an artist, you need to have your finger on the pulse of American culture.

MP: The most important thing you can do is to be true to your own passion, [and the] desire to become what you want to become. I know that sounds kind of packed, but really, no one is going to do it except you.

Is  there anything you would change about your time at Columbia?

DS: Have more fun. I didn’t have enough of it while I was there.

AB: I wouldn’t change a thing. I think I did pretty good there. I can’t complain.

MP: That is a question I never ever thought of because my experience there was really quite enjoyable. I would say there was probably a few girls I should have asked out—and a few I wish I hadn’t.