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This Day in My History

2000:  To Be Poor in America
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"A Friend Indeed"

A Friend Indeed

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4th of July 2006

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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.

Gilbert.jpg (25680 bytes)How do I explain Gilbert Russak?

Tonight, for the nineteenth time in 19th years, a group of us will meet for dinner to celebrate Gilbert’s 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 alive.

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 Children’s Opera. But he was much more....

He had been the Lamplighters' leading patterman for many years prior to his trading the greasepaint for a conductor’s baton. But he was much more...

He had been the director for several shows for The Lamplighters, including the much praised first production of Something’s 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 I’d 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, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, vintage TV, and computers. But he was much more...

He was my dearest friend.

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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.

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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 him.

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 "bunburys.").

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; Tommy’s 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 didn’t put on the menu; Bruno’s 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 I’m 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 let’s 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, it’s you," he would say, peering over the tops of his glasses when I walked in the office. That’s how you knew you were his friend. He dismissed you with a disdainful "’s you..."

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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 Humperdink’s 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 conductor’s 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 don’t 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 he’d ordered for us to an exhibit of Impressionist painters and taught me about Impressionism.

Some days we just did nothing. Occasionally he’d get "nudgy" (as he put it) and we’d 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 he’d either glow about how great it had gone, or rant about mistakes. If I didn’t attend a show, he’d 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 don’t know and it’s none of their business," he replied in a very clipped tone. To this day, his sister can’t 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. We’d 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 I’d plan to drive down early the next day to pick him up and take him to work, so he didn’t 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, don’t panic, but Gilbert’s 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 didn’t 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 Gilbert’s 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. He’d been depressed for years and looked forward to dying, though he wasn’t 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 didn’t 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. I’ve 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 David’s death 1996.

Tonight we will raise a glass one more time: "Oh it’s you!" We didn’t have him long enough, but we were so blessed that he was in our lives.

I loved you, my friend.


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No friendship can ever cross the path of our destiny
without leaving some mark upon it forever.

- Francois Mauriac

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