THE FACES OF AIDS

1 December 2003

On World AIDS Day, it is good to remember the faces of the people I have lost to AIDS.  When you put faces to a terrible disease like this,it's harder to push it under the rug. The UN has declared that AIDS is a greater threat to the world than global terrorism, and yet we continue to move it to the back seat. With 3 million deaths a year, this is something that needs to be a more urgent priority.

Some of this is a repeat of what I wrote a year ago; some of it is new.

Arthur Conrad was the first person I knew to die of AIDS 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.    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.  Arthur 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.

JohnG.jpg (40064 bytes)John Gilkerson played many roles with The Lamplighters, but when I interviewed him for "The Lamplighters Story, 1976-1986" he said "Everyone always says 'we remember when you played Mercury.'"  He bounced onto the Lamplighters stage in Orpheus in the Underworld and brought down the house with his number.  He was a diminutive, multi-talented man who could sing, dance, act, and design.  For years he designed the Christmas windows for Gumps, an upscale department store in San Francisco.  He also became the Lamplighters costume designer and his last design, for the award-winning Princess Ida was some of his best work, though he told me he preferred his design for The Mikado.  (For Mikado, he shared the title role with 6'5" John Ziaja and somehow managed to design a costume which both of them could wear!)

The last time I saw him was opening night of Princess Ida.   He hid in the back of the theatre, his face marked with kaposi sarcoma lesions.   I hugged him and told him how proud I was of him.  Within weeks he was gone.   On his last night, he got up, hugged his father, told him he finally understood what it was all about, and then went to sleep for the last time.  San Francisco lost a great talent the day John died.

DanG.jpg (46873 bytes)Dan Gensemer was another young actor who exuded life and excitement.  He elctrified you whenever he was on stage.  In this photo he's appearing as the egocentric Zsupan from Emerich Kalman's Countess Maritza, but I remember him most fondly from Something's Afoot, where he played the nefarious scheming nephew Nigel, who is trying to find the will to his dead uncle's fortune.     As part of his dance routine, he would leap up onto the mantle of the gigantic fireplace.  I was always afraid he'd fall, but he never did.

I didn't know Dan well but enjoyed his performances through the years and, as he, too, left a big hole in the artistic community of San Francisco.

Norman.jpg (47440 bytes)Norman Roberts was one of the leading pattermen for The Lamplighters for more than a decade.  A transplant from Canada, he quickly showed his talent when he made his debut as the Duke of Plaza Toro in The Gondoliers.   He was born to play the haughty, somewhat foolish British aristocrats that W.S. Gilbert loved to parody.

At the time of his death, he had moved back to Canada and had become the leading actor at one of the professional theatres in the province in which he lived (I've forgotten which one).  A tremendous talent, a tremendous voice, silenced by AIDS.

Larry.jpg (46632 bytes)Larry B. Ayo was Fagin to Paul's Oliver in a Davis production of Oliver! and he was King Arthur to David's page in Camelot.     The kids got to know him better than I did, and they teased him because he wouldn't tell them what the "B" stood for.  In fact, he died with his secret intact.  Nobody ever did find out what the "B" stood for.

He had left Davis and was living in the Monterey area, working in theatre there.  Several months before his death, I received a letter from, totally out of the blue, thanking me for all I'd done for him through the years (in truth, I don't remember ever doing anything for him), and commenting on how special he felt about our kids.  That year, because I had contact information for him again, I sent him a Christmas card and, after the first of the year, received a note from his mother informing me of his death.

Such a sadness.  He was a wonderful talent who died much too early.

BillB.jpg (26815 bytes)My distant cousin Bill Brunson died of AIDS in September 2000after 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."

dikjes.jpg (11276 bytes)Richard Remley was Steve's best friend.  He died January 25, 2000.  I didn't know Dickie  well, but have come to know him better since his death. For the first months that I was part of the TLS (The Last Session) 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 Mike and Butch 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.

 

 

Arthur

John

Tony

Larry

Harry

Read

Pasquale

Tom

Dan

Sebastian

Walter 

Roy

JaymesMark

Walter

Dickie

Bill

 

 

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Created 12/01/03