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Petaluma Profile: Ron Lam sings, dances - and wears a badge

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If you heard that someone led a “double life” what would you imagine? That they are a spy? Or perhaps something darker? Maybe they have a secret family hidden out of state?

Petaluma resident Ron Lam does lead a double life — but it’s not nefarious.

Somehow, he’s managed to integrate a number of passions that at first glance seem crazily incongruous. His long career and “day job” — as a police department sergeant inspector in the Metro Bay Area — has been focused on the darker side of humanity. But his nights are filled with dance and music, either performing ballet or acting and singing show tunes in a musical theater production.

How did this happen?

Lam was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to the U.S. (to El Cerrito) with his parents when he was 5 years old. His mother and father, both opera singers, made sure that music was part of his education and that he played and practiced violin diligently throughout his childhood. In high school, his friends were involved in musical theater — and clearly having way more fun than he was with his violin. He joined his high school’s production of Cole Porter’s “The Boyfriend,” and was instantly hooked. His musical background made singing a breeze. He went on to study at Sonoma State, largely because of the school’s drama department. But when he got there, he says, the talent of the other musical theater students blew him out of the water.

“I wanted to continue with musical theater,” he says. “But, golly, there were so many talented people!”

So he decided to get realistic about his future and look for a paying job where he could help people. He landed a college internship with the police department at Sonoma State and found he loved police work. After graduation, he went straight to the police academy to begin his successful 28-year career working his way up the chain of command — first to detective, then sergeant, and now inspector sergeant.

“Acting,” he says, “went completely fallow for many years.”

Then one day in 2009, a friend introduced him to a dance teacher, Tamara Grose, who needed someone to do a walk-on role in an upcoming ballet production.

“I participated and realized how much I missed the stage,” he recalls.

So, at the age of 42, Lam would begin leaving his police precinct at the end of the day, and drive an hour-and-a-half to Rohnert Park for evening ballet lessons three nights a week.

Eight years later, he is still studying ballet.

“At first, I kept the ballet lessons secret from the police department,” he says with a smile. “Eventually, it came out, but by then I had sufficient time and rank so nobody gave me too much grief.”

As he got more involved with his new hobby, his love of the stage snowballed. Last year, a friend told him the Spreckels Theater Company, in Rohnert Park, needed a background dancer for an upcoming production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”

The director ended up giving Lam a speaking role.

“Golly,” says Lam — and when he says this antique word (and he says it a lot), you start to wonder why no one uses it anymore — “That show reminded me where my roots were, and where I really wanted to be — musical theater.” He credits artistic director Sheri Lee Miller with giving him a great opportunity. “South Pacific” led to the role of a pirate in last May’s “Peter Pan,” and he will be performing in the Spreckels upcoming production of “The Addams Family: The Musical” this October.

“Musical theater was my first love,” Lam explains. “I’ve had a 30-year gap in my acting, so just watching the actors from young to old — the way they interact — it’s like learning a craft all over again.”

In some ways, it wasn’t quite a 30-year gap.

When asked about a military uniform displayed in the corner of his Petaluma living room, it becomes clear that donning costumes and playing roles has long been lurking in the corners of Lam’s life.

When his son was 10 (Lam has two grown children), he spotted a flier for Civil War Days in Duncans Mills — the largest civil war reenactment on the West Coast. He went for his son’s sake, and afterwards they participated together for a while — creating and wearing period-correct uniforms and trying to speak, eat and live the way soldiers would have done during the Civil War.

After a few months Lam’s son lost interest. He didn’t like eating salt pork and hard tack and camping in the cold. But Lam kept participating with his mock unit, which was supposed to be from Maine. He remembers trying to approximate a Maine accent from the 1860s on weekends, and heading back to the reality of the police station on Monday morning.

Why does acting and theater continue to hold Lam captive?

“Script, music, it’s flat,” he says, holding up a bound copy of a play lying on his coffee table as evidence. “It exists on paper, but it only gets life when actors and singers put it on stage. Every time a high school or theater company puts on a play, they’re trying to bring back the time period it comes from. It’s almost like time travel.”

Lam continues, clearly becoming excited at the subject, throwing in a “golly” or two here and there.

“It’s up to the actors and singers to bring it back to life,” he says. “To be involved with something like that, to me, is astounding.”