WORLD AIDS DAY
1 December 2002
Today is World AIDS Day. I don't know if you "celebrate it" or
"commemorate it" or merely acknowledge the sadness that such a day is even
necessary. Over the past week I've heard more facts and figures about new AIDS cases
(women are finally outnumbering men in new cases--and Eastern European countries have the
fastest growing number of new cases).
I decided to participate in "Link
and Think," a web site for people with a web presence to agree to use their web
pages to draw attention to the AIDS pandemic, whether by turning the web site black in
honor of those artists in our world who have been lost to this disease, or to use the site
to give some personal experience with AIDS, and people who have been taken from our lives
as a result of AIDS. I have chosen to do the latter.
The first person I knew personally to die of AIDS was a man named Arthur
Conrad. Arthur was an amazingly talented person who was a dancer, a choreographer, an
actor, a director, and probably a lot of other things I never knew about. I didn't know
him well, though he had been around The Lamplighters for years. But we became close in the
last months of his life when he directed a production of The Mikado and I was his
director's assistant. (Please note the distinction between "assistant director"
and "assistant to the director." The former is a person of talent and
experience who can be second in command for a production; the latter is a flunky who goes
for coffee and does other menial tasks that the director has no time to do. I was the
latter.) We spent a lot of time together during that production and I remember that he had
"a cold" which he couldn't shake. This was in 1986 and hospitals were still
quarantining people suspected of having HIV or full blown AIDS and if you were allowed to
see patients at all, you had to put on hospital gowns and masks and gloves. You never
hugged a friend with AIDS for fear you would get it. So people were reluctant to be tested
and lived in blissful ignorance of their status. AIDS was also a certain killer, as this
was before any of the new drugs had made their appearance.
talked about his cold and when I drove him home, he huddled in the corner of the car and
shivered, and coughed.
When the show ended, he told me that he was so grateful to me for all the help I had
been that he wanted to take me out to lunch as soon as he was feeling a bit better and we
could find a convenient day. I was looking forward to that, as I dropped him off at his
local supermarket so he could buy some soup to take home for dinner that night.
It was a month later when I received the call that he had collapsed and had been taken
to the hospital. The diagnosis was pneumocystis pneumonia. The call came on a Thursday. I
immediately went to the store and bought him a card and got it in the mail that afternoon.
He died before it was delivered.
Arthur was the choreographer for the Oakland ballet and played Mother Marshmallow in
many of its Nutcracker productions. He directed wonderful productions for The
Lamplighters and appeared in several as well. I am proud that he was my friend and I still
miss him today.
In between Arthur's death and the death of my friend Bill, I watched several other
friends and acquaintances die. John Gilkerson (mentioned by Tom Hanks in his acceptance
speech following his Oscar for Philadelphia. John and Tom were classmates at
Skyline High School in Oakland). John was an actor, singer, dancer, choreographer and
costume designer. He created the Christmas windows for the upscale store, Gumps, in San
Francisco for years.
We lost Tony Fields, who
appeared in the movie of A Chorus Line, had a recurrent role on L.A. Law, and
was a regular on Solid Gold. He was a graduate of Davis High
School, whom we first saw do Bye Bye Birdie when it was the high school senior
We lost Larry B. Ayo, who was King Arthur in Camelot the year David played the
young page at the end of the musical.
Our friend Harry Krade was the social center of the Davis Comic Opera
Company--president of its board, always hosting parties at his house. He and his wife
Margaret, who died of emphysema, gave DCOC their barn for the building and storing of
sets, and they were wonderful friends. I went to the hospital the day before Harry died to
tell him goodbye and hardly recognized the shell of the man I had just seen a few weeks
There were people whose paths crossed ours, whom we knew slightly, but not well: Read
Gilmore, a costume designer; Dan Gensemer, a marvelous actor; Sebastian Paillet, from
Switzerland who performed with The Lamplighters; Jaymes Mark, an actor, costumer, and Joan
Crawford inpersonator; Walter Matthes, a booming operatic basso and marvelous actor
(sometimes known as "Walter, the spitter," for his habit of expectorating when
involved in an animated bit of dialogue).
friend Bill Brunson (who was also, we discovered, my distant cousin) died in September,
2000, after many brushes with death. He and I became close after a particular bad
hospital admission in 1997, when his husband Mike was so terrified to go back to work and
leave Bill at home, fearing he would come home and find Bill dead. I flew to Houston (in July)
and lived with them for a month, doing housework, keeping Bill company, making dinner, and
getting to know Bill better. We watched birds every day and whenever I see a cardinal, I
think fondly of the cardinal family we watched. I returned a year later to bake him a
cherry pie on his birthday, and the following year for a brief visit. The last thing he
said to me as I left Houston was "come back and see us any time." Shortly after,
he was hospitalized for his last lengthy stay. I spoke with him on the phone a day or two
before he lapsed into his last coma and his last words to me were "I love you."
The Last Session group lost Richard
("Dickie") Remley on January 25, 2000. I didn't know Dickie well, but
have come to know him better since his death. He was Steve's best friend. And for the
first months that I was part of the TLS group, he was its soul. One of the long-term
survivors of AIDS, he had been involved with support groups in Los Angeles and was always
there to comfort, to explain, to teach and to just be Dickie. He even developed his own
theory about AIDS, which Steve and Dickie's girlfriend Gail encouraged him to put into
writing--some of the new theories about AIDS transmission, while not inspired by Dickie's
work, mirror it amazingly. I drove to LA to attend his memorial service and was blown away
by the stories people had to tell about how he had influenced their life. Most influenced
was his friend Bob, who has, himself, since lost his battle against this horrible disease.
When you put a face on a disease, it's hard to casually dismiss it. My passion for
bringing acknowledgement and understanding...and research...to this pandemic is based on
the faces I see who have already left this world much poorer. And to the people who have
become part of my heart--Steve and Michael and Priscilla and Mona and a host of others. I
want a cure to be found in time to remove the sword from over the head of each of them,
and of everyone now coping with the effects of AIDS. I want to live to see a day when we
no longer talk of whole countries in the third world decimated by AIDS. When more money is
spent on finding a cure for AIDS than finding ways to blow up our enemies.
I don't want anybody else I love to die of this disease.