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Hammer of Eden
WHAT I'M WATCHING...
That's it for today!
4 August 2001
I sat in the darkened theatre. The conductor came out, bowed to the audience, picked up the baton, and the orchestra began the opening strains of the overture to The Mikado, those familiar notes that I've heard again and again and again through the 40 years of my familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan.
As I listened to the music it was like standing on a cliff looking down on a beach, watching the waves come crashing in, and then rolling back out to meet the next wave coming in. It was the past jumbled together with the present, meeting the future. Wave upon wave of memories mixed up with experiences of the present and thoughts of the future.
We had just come from the annual Gilbert dinner, two blocks away. This was the 15th year that a group of us has come together to honor the memory of Gilbert Russak, musical director of The Lamplighters, patterman extraordinaire, and our friend. As we did each year, we raised our glasses and gave the traditional toast: Oh. It's you.
The toast came from the fact that when you were Gilbert's friend and you encountered him, say, at work or otherwise engrossed in something, he would look up, raise his eyes over his glasses and say "Oh. It's you." It was a running joke that has now become part of the fabric of his memory, woven into the ritual of the dinner we hold to remember him each year.
This year the group was somewhat smaller--about 14 of us, seated at two tables in a thai restaurant. Part of our number was Gilbert's great niece, Rachel, here for vacation and eager to learn about her uncle, whom she last saw when she was 3 years old.
And so we sat around and shared Gilbert stories. Roger remembered how Gilbert had introduced him to Mahler, playing Mahler's 3rd symphony as they were driving across the Golden Gate bridge in a convertible, because he said that you could appreciate Mahler more while crossing the bridge. They then continued on up to San Rafael to look at the community center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There was no one around and they parked the car to appreciate the architecture and continue listening to Mahler, when suddenly two police cars pulled up, officers got out with drawn guns and ordered them out of the car, to stand with hands on the roof, while they were frisked.
It turned out that recently there had been a shooting at the center, and a judge had been killed. Since then, the police were on the lookout for unusual activity, and apparently two guys sitting in a convertible listening to Mahler's 3rd symphony while appreciating the architecture qualified as "unusual activity."
"Maybe I should have played the 8th symphony," Gilbert quipped dryly, Roger reported.
Henry talked about finding Gilbert in the darkened theatre after a performance, just sitting there, looking totally drained. When Henry expressed concern Gilbert waved him off and explained that until someone has conducted a performance, they don't realize how draining it is and he was just exhausted.
Will recalled a time when Gilbert asked Will (who is chronically late) to be at his house no later than a certain time and expressed upon him the importance of being there on the dot because they absolutely positively had to leave by that time. When Will arrived, on the dot, Gilbert opened the door, said "Good. I just wanted to see if you could do it," and closed the door in his face again. (He then opened it again--but it was all about timing, of course)
Memory after memory spilled out over the pad thai and Rachel drank it all in, fleshing out the mental image of this man who had loomed so large in her life.
Walt and I left the dinner a little early to walk the two blocks to the theatre where we were seeing our umpteenth production of The Mikado, by The Lamplighters, for which Gilbert had been the musical director for the last several years of his life, and leading patterman (the guy who usually sings the rapid-fire patter-songs in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta) since he joined the company in the 1950s.
Gilbert did all of the pattermen roles in all of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, except for one (it called for a better singing voice than Gilbert had and he was always sorry that he never had the opportunity to play that role), but the role for which he was best known was that of KoKo in The Mikado. He is still acknowledged by those who were privileged to see him do that role, to have given perhaps the best interpretation ever of the tailor turned Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu.
I have seen Koko's in the years since Gilbert gave up acting and I've seen some pretty good ones. Last night's was not one of them. Oh he got all the words right and perhaps if you are not familiar with the show, you might even think that he was fairly good, but what was missing was the magic Gilbert brought to that role. Seeing him do it in the 1960s made a Gilbert & Sullivan fan of me and I've always been sorry that his best performances came in the days before people videotaped everything.
So as I sat in that darkened theatre and listened to the orchestra which Gilbert had conducted for so long playing the music which would introduce the operetta for which Gilbert was most famous, having just come from a dinner which concentrated on memories of Gilbert, and I thought about his niece, about to start her own path to a theatrical career, the thoughts rolled over and over in my head like a flashback scene in a movie, with The Mikado overture as the soundtrack.
I was lost in my own personal time warp.
Some pictures from this
Created 8/4/01 by Bev Sykes