Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Gift to New York

When Oscar Hammerstein died, in 1960, I remember reading that the lights of every Broadway theater would be dimmed at curtain time for one full minute, and thinking how wonderful that was—the ultimate curtain call—for one man to achieve such extraordinary recognition for a life in the theater and his contribution to the art of it. Since becoming a New Yorker, I’ve noted a number of such fitting testaments to men and women whose luster illuminated the theater world. But none moved me the way a tribute to a gift to New York did this past Tuesday evening, when Broadway’s lights were dimmed for Howard Kissel. Through the din of Times Square, I could hear his mellifluous speaking voice in his measured tones, rich with irony and warm with whimsy, as he audibly punctuated his graceful prose.

We’ve lost a cultural icon, an irreplaceable one. Broadway, New York, the world, can ill afford it. Howard knew opera and dance, theater for sure, music of all sorts, and a good film. He knew books and he knew art. And he spoke masterly in the language of all of these. He knew knowledge.

And he could tell a great Jewish joke. Sprinkled with Yiddish. Relishing one, from his lips or another’s, he could laugh quieter and more broadly—at the same time—than anyone I ever came across.

For years, Howard, dance critic Joe Mazo and I would join up and sit together at High Holiday services. Even in synagogue, Howard always seemed to have a better bead on things than we did. Perhaps it was a result of an early goal: you’re unlikely to find this in any theatrical who’s who, but Howard told me he initially wanted to be a Reform rabbi.

For many months over one of those years, we three met for dinner practically every Friday night. Initially, it was to discuss and dissect the topic beloved by us, the performing arts in New York, specifically everything we could cover (plus a few books). The evenings evolved into a notion that we could collaborate on the libretto of a musical, with one of us volunteering to do the primary research, another assigning himself to a working outline, and the third designated to start tracking down the rights. I don’t remember any of us ever producing anything we could even draw a pencil line through. After apologies and excuses as we pulled our chairs closer to the table each week, we plunged into what any three people in New York who love theater do best, “talking theater.”

Howard, whom I can’t imagine comfortable growing up in the Milwaukee of the 40s and 50s, told me he was looking through a book of Bettmann Archive photos when he came across one of a Lower East Side New York storefront shop (one of those entered by descending three stairsteps below the sidewalk), a sign above its store window bearing the proprietor’s name and the store’s merchandise—in Hebrew. “And I knew there was a place where I belonged,” he said.

More than Broadway lights have been dimmed by our loss of him. He’ll be missed. I'll miss him.


  1. Sounds like he was a very good man. I never knew him, but I will miss him too just for that.

  2. Hi Ray,
    I am so sorry for Howard's loss and the prejudicial slurs while growing up. Unfortunately, prejudice surely remains today.
    My beloved Mom (died age 46) never finished High School. Throughout her Senior Year my Mom's English teacher at Fifth Ave. H.S. in Pittsburgh kept calling her a "dirty Jew". My Beloved Grandmother, her Mother, would hear her tell of this teacher and ask her Mom, "why does she keep calling me "dirty"; I wash everyday,as she sobbed throughout her entire year with this "bi..." of a teacher. The month before graduating that same teacher, called her a "dirty Jew" and slapped her across the face. When my Mom came in tears, her Mom never let her go back to school again. Later in years, after my Mom worked at Frank & Sedar's Dept. Store selling shoes, the store closed. I taught my mom, with very little help, to get her GED. My mom ended up working for Koppers, accounts receivable. In the summer of my Junior Year in college, I had the honor to work on the floor directly above my Mom at Koppers in Research and Development. I cherished every moment that we would spend eating lunch together a George Aikens Fish House. Koppers offered for me to stay with them, but, I wanted to complete my college eduction and become a Math Teacher. Just about four years, my Beloved Mom, passed away. Throughout my own personal experience, after the fire in our Apt. complex in the 1964 with no insurance, no money, We lived in terrace Village, the Hill District.After getting out of the Hill district in Pittsburgh and getting my Mom and my Brother away from very abusive father that could never hold a job, gambled all the money that my Mom earned, beat My Mom, me, and seeing just beginning on my 2 year brother abuse starting, I got them in a cab and we moved to the South Side. The place we moved was painted with Swastikas and other anti-semantic slurs. Somehow, they knew that a Jewish family was moving into their WASP neighborhood(no offense meant, that was "their term" of the neighborhood). During my first few years of teaching, I was called "little Jew Boy" by my fellow teachers. They thought it was funny. In my first year teaching in Ca., Palm Springs School district, a female teacher would sing during the daily announcements and give a "this day in history" story. On April 20, 1993, this Principal, after singing, honored Hitler's Birthday by saying that "he was a great leader that helped Germany regain its stature with virtuous acts of courage against all odds." Needless, to say, i reported this anonymously to ACLU and the
    Anti-Defermention League. I quickly left to to teach in Murrieta the following year.
    I am sorry to take up so much time on your Blog, my friend, but this story brought much of my personal life that I could relate to the late Howard and his life of Hell in the 40's and 50's that really hasn't changed much. Just listen to the GOP attacks on Women in these recent times.

  3. Hi Ray,
    Personal Attacks on Women Today--the prejudice continues today with hatred and bigotry from the pulpits to high ranking public officials to TV and Radio commentators--

  4. May Howard's Life Be For a Blessing.

  5. As I read (and enjoy) your writings, I can't avoid the conclusion that I wasted too much of my time with you -- talking when I could have been listening.

    Will W.

  6. Makes me feel like I knew him too! Thank you!