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A FRIEND INDEED
12 July 2006
This is a rerun of an entry I first posted
in 2000, when I had hardly any readership. I feel the desire to post it again,
updated to 2006.
How do I explain Gilbert Russak?
Tonight, for the nineteenth time in 19th years,
a group of us will meet for dinner to celebrate Gilberts life, which ended on
Bastille Day in 1986. The group consists of the 12 people who were the closest to him in
life and who took care of the details surrounding his funeral, memorial, and disposition
of his goods, and a few other people we have added to the group through the years.
Gilbert would be flabbergasted if he knew that
we met once to celebrate his life, much less continued to meet every year for 20
years. I've now celebrated his life for twice as long as I knew him while he was
Professionally, Gilbert had been, for 5 years, the Musical Director for The Lamplighters Musical Theatre in San Francisco.
He was also the assistant conductor for the San Francisco Childrens Opera. But he
was much more....
He had been the Lamplighters' leading patterman
for many years prior to his trading the greasepaint for a conductors baton. But he
was much more...
He had been the director for several shows for The Lamplighters, including the much
praised first production of Somethings Afoot. But he was much more...
He was the principal author of the Lamplighters yearly champagne gala, a parody
show, written each year as the biggest fundraiser for the company. But he was much more...
He was one of the most intelligent men Id ever known, in a quiet, unassuming sort of
way. He knew everything about everything, with particular passions for the Titanic, the
Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, the history of animation, Wagners Ring Cycle,
vintage TV, and computers. But he was much more...
He was my dearest friend.
Gilbert & I at the Fairmont Hotel
I first encountered Gilbert Russak when Walt
and I were dating and Gilbert was the leading performer in the Gilbert & Sullivan
operettas for which we were ushering. I developed a huge crush on him and dragged Walt
back to see shows like The Mikado (his KoKo was classic), or Yeomen of the
Guard (his Jack Point never failed to reduce the audience to tears) again and again.
Gilbert (right) as Jack Point in Yeomen of the Guard
Though it has always been the custom at The
Lamplighters for the performers to meet the audience after shows, I was too shy to talk to
In 1981 after a series of events which included
collaborating with Alison S. Lewis and Carolyn McGovern on writing a history of The
Lamplighters, I was offered the chance to volunteer for the company, which was just
beginning to make the transition to a computerized database. Gilbert had recently been
hired full time by the company as its new Musical Director, following the addition of an
orchestra (previously the shows had been accompanied by two pianos).
Over the months of sharing office space in a rickety old warehouse in the Mission
District, Gilbert and I began a casual friendship. We discovered we had much in common and
we often had long talks about anything and everything.
We started going out to dinner occasionally after work (I traveled the 80 miles from Davis
to San Francisco once a week, every Tuesday. Walt was wonderfully tolerant of my weekly
The "occasional dinner" grew into a
regular dinner and we made the rounds of our now-usual haunts--the Big Heart, a greasy
spoon, where we would sit in a booth, eat overly fried foods, and watch "Wheel of
Fortune" on the big screen TV; Tommys Mexican restaurant, where everybody knew
him and greeted him like visiting royalty; Kirin, a Chinese restaurant with a Japanese
name run by Koreans, where we knew the specialties that they didnt put on the menu;
Brunos the upscale Italian place that served fantastic Manhattans, where,
ironically, we went for both our first and last dinners together. So many other places
that have now blurred into obscurity, as they have mostly all closed in the past 20 years.
Many times if dinner ran late or if we had too
much wine with dinner, I would spend the night. He had built an apartment for himself in
the basement of a house he owned and he rented out the upstairs. My "bed" was
the couch in the living room of the upstairs apartment.
In the last year of his life, he was trying to
save money to put a new roof on his house, so we began to eat at home. I cooked gourmet
meals every Tuesday night and made enough so there would be leftovers for him to eat the
next day or two. When the roof was put on, it was christened "The Bev Sykes Memorial
Roof" because of the money he figured he saved by my doing the cooking.
I was also helping him redesign his kitchen. ("Now are you SURE you like this?
Because Im only doing this because you said you liked it...") He had given me a
key to the house and let me know that I could consider it my house too.
We worked well together. In 1982 we wrote Major General Hospital, the first of
the fully originally scripted parody operettas. It was an incredible success. We did, I
think, four of these shows together (with the assistance of a committee) before he died
and we got into a song/script writing pattern that we never varied from--he would sit at
the computer, I would sit in the chair next to his desk and we would talk things through,
with him furiously recording everything on the computer. "We can always change it
later, but lets get it down first!" he would say time and time again.
Occasionally we tried switching seats, since I was the faster typist, but that never
worked. We had to assume our "writing positions" in order for the ideas to flow.
"Oh, its you," he would say, peering over the tops of his glasses when I
walked in the office. Thats how you knew you were his friend. He dismissed you with
a disdainful "Oh...its you..."
Gilbert Russak as KoKo
(from The Mikado)
He taught me so much -- from where the deck
chairs were placed on the Titanic to how to conduct Humperdinks Hansel and
Gretel (he had a new recording of the opera and conducted the entire thing for me one
night, sitting in his bed with the conductors score in his lap, describing for me
what was going on on stage).
He spent weeks giving me the entire convoluted
plot of The Ring Cycle and was going to take me through the music so I could
learn to appreciate it, but he never did (to this day I dont like it).
We attended animation festivals and I learned
about the history of animation, especially Disney animation. He loved watching cartoons
and we often spent whole evenings looking at videotapes of old cartoons. His favorites
were Betty Boop and the Silly Symphonies.
He surprised me one afternoon with tickets
hed ordered for us to an exhibit of Impressionist painters and taught me about
Some days we just did nothing. Occasionally
hed get "nudgy" (as he put it) and wed do something like driving 40
miles to an ice cream store he once liked to get a cone.
We learned computers together how he
would have loved the Internet!
They set aside a seat for me in the theatre, directly behind Gilbert. It was called
"the Bev seat" until he died.
I was his sounding board. We would drive back
to his house together after a show and hed either glow about how great it had gone,
or rant about mistakes. If I didnt attend a show, hed still be ranting two
days later, on Tuesday, when I arrived at work. If I did attend a show, he seemed to get
it all out of his system on that ride home. I like to think that having me around helped.
He was not completely open about being a gay man. There were people who worked with him
for years who asked me, after his death, if he had been gay. Having been born in 1930, he
grew up at a time when the closet was very much a part of who you were. I never learned
what horrors happened to him in high school, but he was filled with rage about his high
school years. I can only imagine. He never came out to his family. I once asked him how
his family felt about his being gay. "As far as I know, they dont know and
its none of their business," he replied in a very clipped tone. To this day,
his sister cant say the word "gay." The best she can do is to say he was
"always very discreet."
On the morning of July 14, 1986, I called Gilbert. He was due to go in for very minor
surgery that afternoon. He was a little nervous. Wed seen each other the day before.
I had spent the night at the house on Saturday, along with my visiting guest from Germany,
who had spent the week with Gilbert, being shown around San Francisco. We all had
breakfast together on Sunday morning and when I started to get into my car Gilbert gave me
an uncharacteristically warm hug good bye. When I called Monday, I told him Id plan
to drive down early the next day to pick him up and take him to work, so he didnt
have to drive. He grumbled, but seemed relieved.
My German guest and I then went off to the Napa Valley to do some wine tasting. On the way
home, I stopped at a winery to pick up a gift for Gilbert. When we got home and I walked
in the door, Tom greeted me with "Now, dont panic, but Gilberts had a
slight heart attack." My stomach did flip-flops.
With shaking hands, I called the man who had called to give me the news. He didnt
have a lot of details. Frantically, I called everyone who would know anything. Each report
was more frightening. Finally, all I could do was wait.
The telephone rang. It was Gilberts tenant.
"Bev?" he said. "Gilbert died."
"HOW COULD HE DIE?" I screamed.
The next days are a blur. I packed up immediately and went to San Francisco, where I
stayed for the next two weeks. "His family will be arriving tomorrow," I told
Walt. "He will be in that house tonight. He will be gone tomorrow. I have to
go." He agreed, but made me promise to call him when I got there. He was worried
about my being on the highway in my upset condition. I cried all the way to San Francisco.
"WHY DID YOU GIVE UP?" I screamed at him. Hed been depressed for years and
looked forward to dying, though he wasnt suicidal.
The house was deserted when I arrived. The tenants were gone. I sat in the apartment and
tried to feel him. His bathrobe was where he had left it, thrown across the bed. It still
smelled of him.
I went through and "straightened up" the house. Got rid of the gay videos and
magazines, and tried to find things that would embarrass him if his family happened upon
them. I did the dishes so the kitchen would be tidy. I didnt want "them"
washing "his" dirty dishes. I didn't want them to think he left the house
untidy. Once his family moved in, signs of Gilbert began to leave. Cigarette smoke covered
the familiar smell of the apartment. I came home one day to find all his clothes on the
floor--someone was coming to take them away. I sat on the floor of the apartment sobbing,
watching him go, piece by piece.
That was 20 years ago. Ive long since let him go (though it took years). He
continued to teach me, even in his death. He taught me about death and dying and about
grief. "Pay attention now, this is important" I heard him say in my mind. As I
had for five years, I learned the lessons he was teaching me and I "graduated"
when I applied my "grief lessons" to Davids death 1996.
Tonight we will raise a glass one more time: "Oh its you!" We didnt
have him long enough, but we were so blessed that he was in our lives.
I loved you, my friend.