THE GREAT MAN IS
(and I don't care)
21 July 2002
At 3:30 a.m. on Friday, Spencer Solon Beman, III
breathed his last. How old was he? I don't remember. I used to know once, but I haven't
seen him in years. Very few people have seen him in years. He has spent the last 10 years
dying, piece by piece, confined to bed, unable to speak, incontinent, pieces of his body
being amputated as gangrene set in.
I'd like to say "it couldn't happen to a better person,"
but even Spencer didn't deserve the indignity of his slow death. If there is such a thing
as Purgatory, his sins were definitely washed clean.
In case I'm too subtle for the readers, there was no love lost
between Spencer and myself. It wasn't always that way, but it definitely evolved into a
mutual hate-hate relationship.
Spencer was the Managing Director for The Lamplighters, the Gilbert
& Sullivan company with which I was associated for a huge chunk of my life (the same
company for which Gilbert Russak was the Musical Director).
A former Navy captain, Spencer came to The Lamplighters and over a
couple of years, managed to oust co-founder and then managing director, Ann Pool, in a
scene that was not very pretty, and which leaves a lot of people bitter even to this day.
Ann Pool and Spencer Beman
After the company vote which stripped Ann of her title, she returned
to her office to clean up and, with a sneer, Spencer said something to the effect of
"this is mine now." It was a bloodless coup and set the stage for the way
Spencer would work--especially with women--over the decades that marked his
Not to deny the devil his due, Spencer took the Lamplighters higher
than anybody ever dreamed. Under his leadership the company moved to new, better quarters,
acquired an orchestra (replacing the two pianos which had been the accompaniment for
years), purchased a storehouse, and continued to gather supporters, awards, and kudos.
When patrons arrived at the theatre, one of their first sights would
be the large, barrel-chested Beman, in his tuxedo, waiting to greet them.
He was adamant that shows start on time. Rare was the night when the
curtain would be held for anything. And if it had to beif, for example, there was a
huge traffic backup on any of the main roads into San Francisco, he would make an
announcement from the stage. But barring anything of that order, you knew that at 8 p.m.
on the dot, the show would start. Now that I'm a theatre critic and attend more
productions than I have in a very long time, I think of Spencer at almost every show, as I
watch the hands of my watch creep up to and past the publicized start time. I don't know
another theatre group that was so consistent in its on-time starts.
Co-founder Orva Hoskinson, President Adrian McNamara, Spencer Beman
|I first crossed paths with Spencer in the
early 70s when I came on board to work with Alison S. Lewis and Carolyn McGovern to write
a book celebrating the Lamplighters' 25th anniversary. Initially Spencer was supportive of
the project, but he grew to resent our intrusion, or perhaps to be jealous of the
attention we were receiving, and, since he had put up such monumental roadblocks all along
the way, when we came to write the acknowledgements in the book we were faced with the
thorny task of trying to write an acknowledgement which was not an acknowledgement.
Alison, ever the mistress of tact, wrote: Because of this history, Spencer Beman
suffered numerous distractions from his already monumental job as producer and executive
vice president of The Lamplighters; this book could not but become an additional burden
A year or so after publication of the book, Spencer
called me to ask if I would be able to volunteer some time to help transfer data from
cards to the new computer system they had just installed. It was a request which would
radically change my life for the next several years.
I did yeomen's work on the data transfer, ultimately just moving
into the warehouse, sleeping under the costumes, and working night and day to get all of
the information transferred in a matter of days.
By the time it was finished, I had come to enjoy hanging around the
warehouse, to enjoy my fledgling friendship with Gilbert, and to realize that there was a
place for me as a volunteer. Ever the practical one, I waited until we moved 80 miles away
from the Bay Area to get a volunteer job in San Francisco! (This ranks up there with
waiting until our last child was in school before going back to work--at a night job!)
Over the next five years, I worked 1-2 days a week for the
Lamplighters and at some point Spencer decided to reimburse me for my gasoline each month,
which allowed me to continue the commute.
During this time, my friendship with Gilbert deepened. We really
became best friends when we decided to work on a script for a show together. The
Lamplighters had been putting on a potpourri type show as a fundraiser for several years.
It was always great fun, always a big money maker, and consisted of funny stand-alone bits
that were always audience pleasers. Music was generally taken from the shows that had been
done the previous year.
Gilbert got this idea for a new show, I convinced him that the
chorus was capable of learning new music, and we began rewriting lyrics. Nobody had quite
seen anything like Major General Hospital. It was an incredible success and it set the standard for all gala productions since. Critics
loved it. Audiences loved it. Everyone raved about it. With its medical theme, doctors
talked about performing it as entertainment for medical conventions.
In the background, Spencer seethed. He had been convinced that it
would be a disaster and we had proven him wrong.
On the heels of all this success, we started planning our next show.
The writing process was a total disaster. Spencer had become insanely jealous of the
friendship Gilbert and I had developed, and of the success of Major General Hospital. I
would arrive at work, Gilbert and I would begin working and Spencer would call me to do
something that absolutely had to be done right then. No matter that it was trivial,
and something that had been waiting weeks to be done. A closet needed to be organized this
minute, errands needed to be run, etc. One time Gilbert shut the door to his office so we
could work in quiet. Spencer, a very large man, heard the door close and he came slamming
into the office yelling "THERE WILL BE NO CLOSED DOORS IN THIS OFFICE."
The show got written, but we did it at Gilbert's house, or over
dinner at local greasy spoons. In the office, we realized we couldn't even talk to each
other. Everything we did together irritated Spencer. At the time of his death, Gilbert was
barely speaking to Spencer, the tension between the two of them had become so great.
(At one point recently a call went out to company members to donate sheets to be
used as diapers for Spencer. I gave some sheets that once belonged to Gilbert.
I like to think Gilbert would have enjoyed that bit of irony!)
After Gilbert died, I wanted to write a book to chronicle the next
10 years of the Lamplighter history, years where Gilbert came to his fullest potential. I
wanted there to be a history of it somewhere. Spencer was against the project. With
my everlasting gratitude, Alison took on the job of convincing the board to let us go
ahead with the project. She never told me what happened at the meeting, but in the end, I
had permission to write the book.
The book was published without fanfare. But it was published. And
its publication marked the last time that Spencer spoke to me. He would pass me in the
hall and turn away. In truth, I had little desire to speak with him either.
I did not attend his retirement party. It seemed hypocritical. His
health had been failing and his once sharp mental acuity had slipped. In a nice bit of
life coming full circle, it was now Spencer who had to be asked to retire. It was a bit
kinder than he had been to Ann, but he did not want to go and had to be told that it was
Then he had the first of a series of strokes which put him in bed
for the past ten years. His partner of these many years has stayed by his side, caring for
him. I'm glad that he is now finally free to pursue his own life.
As I did not attend Spencer's retirement party, when there is a
"celebration" of his life, I will not attend either. He did not like me. I did
not like him. Let those who did celebrate his life. The pebble of his death makes not a
single ripple in the pool of my life.