Navy helicopter pilot sidelines as “Just Tryna Make Friends” show promoter
Julie Roland grew up in an extremely creative Bay Area household. Her mother was both a health researcher and a poet and made sure that there was plenty of opportunity for creativity at home — from puppetry and filmmaking to music and even magic.
“My mom was just a huge promoter of any kind of artistic endeavor we wanted to explore,” Roland said during a phone interview.
Now Roland brings that spirit of creativity to her adopted hometown of San Diego through her Just Tryna Make Friends variety show — a gathering of artists of all stripes.
The idea actually took root in high school, where Roland worked as a stage manager for her school’s theater program. She enjoyed that position because stage directing required leadership skills, something she wanted to foster.
But then she took an unlikely career path: a helicopter pilot in the United States Navy.
It doesn’t necessarily seem like an obvious move, but Roland says that after doing a summer program at the U.S. Naval Academy, the Navy’s emphasis on leadership intrigued her, especially since it tied into her experience in theater. So, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Roland enlisted and trained to become a Naval helicopter pilot.
She was eventually stationed in Pensacola, Florida. But that’s also when she began to miss the creative outlets she’d been exposed to as a child and young adult.
“Suddenly I’m living in Pensacola, having a full-time job in the Navy,” she said. “Suddenly, my desire to be more surrounded by the arts became more pressing. I think it’s because I took it for granted in high school and college that I had a lot of creative outlets. I was living in big cities — I was in San Francisco, then Baltimore and then Philadelphia, I studied abroad in Paris. Suddenly, I’m in Pensacola and there’s less of an art scene and my job is less creative in general.”
She began exploring ways to fulfill that creative desire on the side, eventually making friends with musicians and artists living near her. Through her friends’ crowdfunding efforts, she even contributed financially to a couple of her musician friends’ projects, and in return she was promised house concerts.
“I had two bands that I had supported that both, because of my support, owed me house shows. So I had this in the back of my head. I move out to San Diego. I go on deployment. I come back and I’m finally a little more settled, I have a house here and I want to cash in on these house shows,” she explained.
Her musician friends were touring artists, which meant that they’d eventually be on the West Coast.
“I had in mind, gosh, when I have enough friends in San Diego and the space for them to do it, I can’t wait to bring them to my backyard or my living room, invite as many people as I know, and try to create an audience for them because they deserve it because they’re talented musicians, but also, to create an amazing night for my friends and give them a more intimate art experience,” she said.
But as the idea developed, it wasn’t just musicians Roland was interested in promoting. In her short time in San Diego, she had already made friends who were poets and comedians and thought it would be great to showcase everyone in a backyard variety show.
And so in 2019, Roland and a friend, Emilia Barrosse, created a show they called “Just Tryna Make Friends.” The first JTMF show happened in Roland’s backyard. She was living in Mission Hills at the time and she booked musicians and comedians for that show, but since then, the show has evolved to include all kinds of other artists.
Roland lives in Pacific Beach now. She’ll be here at least the next few years with the Navy. Her home sits atop a canyon, with sweeping views and a backyard big enough to host small shows.
“I would say the standard is we always have a musical headliner. I do magic, sometimes I book other magicians. We get stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, improv comedy — those are pretty classic,” she explained. “But we have had everything from fire sword dancing to puppet theater. I’m always looking for something that we’ve never had before. We’ve had live drawing and visual arts, photography and storytelling.”
Since creating the show, versions of JTMF have taken place in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, in addition to happening regularly in San Diego.
Of course, during COVID, the shows were on hiatus. But now that things are back opening up again, JTMF will live on. JTMF shows that take place at her home are free, although a small donation is suggested to help cover food and drinks.
“Even though we put on what I think is a great variety show, where you’ll always get something new, the moral of the story is always friendship. And I think that’s what makes us very special,” said Roland.
The concept of JTMF is to come alone and make friends, another idea that makes them stand out from a standard entertainment show.
“We are preaching from the moment you get there, introduce yourself to strangers, introduce yourself to the people around you and make new friends,” she said. “I think in new cities that you move to, there’s a reluctance to actually introduce ourselves to new people. There’s a stigma about making new friends, about meeting new friends. And so the fact that we just promote it from the second you hear about it to the second you leave, it is really empowering to just put yourself out there. And you see people make friends!”
In addition to JTMF, Roland books a variety show at Firehouse American Eatery + Lounge in Pacific Beach. She has also regularly booked shows at Finest City Improv in Hillcrest, where she will begin a residency this summer, and Grand Artique in Barrio Logan. Most of the shows are spin-offs of JTMF, sticking with a variety show format. Some are more improv-centric or more immersive.
She said most of the performers she books are local to San Diego and Los Angeles. Mike Falzone from Adult Swim is one. He performed at one of Roland’s Firehouse shows in April, in addition to one of the early JTFM shows.
“It was different than a lot of other comedy shows that I’ve done, especially over last year,” Falzone said. “There were three comedians and then there was an improv dance troupe and a band and I just thought that was really awesome because people had been so starved for any kind of live entertainment, so she’s like, well, let’s put everything under the same umbrella for these people who haven’t had any of this for a year. It was like going to the circus.”
Roland said that her day job in the Navy makes her an anomaly in the comedy world, while her side job as a show promoter and artist makes her an anomaly in the Navy world. But her interest in the arts isn’t a secret in her day job.
“I have played the guitar for Navy audiences a handful of time,” she said. “I’ve performed magic on every destroyer, cruiser, aircraft carrier I’ve been on.”
Her peers in the Navy have been supportive of her artistic endeavors, with many showing up to her shows.
“I take pride in that,” she said. “A lot of my friends in the Navy community have come to my shows and enjoy it, bring their spouses, spread the word. Lots of support from them as audience members. I have also had a girl that was a fellow helicopter pilot with me, she loves to cook and was trying to create her own culinary Instagram community, so she cooked for one of our events, created a bunch of autumnal appetizers. So I’m promoting her as culinary arts.”
As for what comes next for Roland, she said she’s committed to the Navy for the next four years, but her passion for bringing art to the masses will live on.
“Honestly, this is such an incredible creative outlet for me,” she continued. “I’m so grateful that I can be at work and then dive into creating promotional art or listening to musicians who want to play a show or listening to comedians who want to play the show or hosting it myself or practicing my own magic.
“If it were a full-time job, it might not be an outlet anymore. I don’t know if I’d even derive the same pleasure. It’s also such a blessing being able to do it without it being my livelihood. I have this thing that is my number one priority, so I just do this from a place of love.”
For more information on JTMF, follow them on Instagram at @jtmfshow. The JTMF show is planned for June 5, while another Firehouse variety show is planned for May 26.