Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: A grand, grand tribute day

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: A grand, grand tribute day

Theater legend Herbert L. Williams is remembered.

MARINETTE, Wis. (WFRV) – Come on along on to a most remarkable event. It’s a tribute like no other.

The person honored was of the theater, so there is a layer of vitality. Theatrical folks know how to spark a laugh…or cry in a flash…or tell rich tales…or sing like a lark and reach into the soul.

The person honored was of a university and of teaching, so there is a layer of intelligence and know how in the event. Education is part preparation, and this event is organized to the T, with many eloquent and heartfelt words spoken.

The person honored was of service to country and pride in serving, so the event ends with a 21-gun salute by an honor guard, the meticulous ritual folding of the American flag and presentation to the honored person’s closest friend, who in turn gives the flag to the university’s dean and CEO. “Taps” is played.

Come on along to the tribute Saturday afternoon at the University of Wisconsin-Marinette in the Fine Arts Building in the Herbert L. Williams Theatre. The event is in the memory of Herbert L. Williams, the founding artistic director for Theatre on the Bay, who died in March at age 79.

“What does the ‘L’ stand for?” one speaker says he once asked Herb Williams. “Lust.” That fits Herb Williams – quick and glib.

The “L” stands for Loren, a family member has already told the audience. Loren is from a grandfather’s name.

But on this day, “Lust” prevails.

“My middle initial is ‘L’,” another speaker says as his introduction. He gets a big laugh. Standing on a stage that is the pioneer of its type in this region, the speaker, an architect, tells of how a trip to Minneapolis to the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre led to the University of Wisconsin-Marinette incorporating a thrust stage in its new theater in the 1960s. With a thrust stage, performances are brought closer to the audience because the stage is thrust into the seating area.

On this day, it is clear that Herb Williams’ “L stands for Lust” also means lust for life. One speaker after another fills in a portrait of a life lived to the hilt, causing a sweeping ripple effect.

For this piece, I’ll run the full program to give you an idea of the event’s scope (adding a few comments). At the end are a few representative speeches, including mine as the closer.

So, come on along…

Program

Welcome – Nancy Gehrke and Greg LeGault. (“Without Herb Williams,” Nancy Gehrke says, “I would have eaten all four of my children.” She is an actress all the way. Greg LeGault is a protégé who leads a theater program of his own and is among many people on the day who say their lives were changed by Herb Williams.)

Campus Welcome – Dean and CEO Paula Langteau. (The eloquent and heartfelt words start with her).

Herb’s Life before Marinette (From family and friends, including classmates. From a cousin we learn that theater ran in the family and that Herb Williams’ father ran away with the circus, temporarily).

John Walker

Pat Kern (A letter is read by friend Jon Ruatti).

Jerry Grubaugh

Bill Smith

Herb as Professor of Communication & Theatre Arts

Sid Bremer (She says her worst day as dean was when Herb Williams told her he was retiring; that was 1996, and he went on to direct and perform more in Green Bay, Appleton and Marinette).

Wendel Johnson

Greg Rindfleisch (unable to attend)

Musical Interlude

“Cabaret” from “Cabaret” by Bill Witt accompanied by David Giebler (Bill Witt is among the performers Herb Williams nurtured. Behind him is the set for the current Theatre on the Bay edition of “Cabaret,” a presentation as part of the 48th season).

Herb as Artistic Director and Actor

Ted Blick (See below).

Lyle Espenscheid

Joni LaFave Hahn

Nancy Gehrke (The 40-year actress speaks on the stage that bears her name).

Warren Gerds

Musical Interlude

“Far From the Home I Love” from “Fiddler on the Roof” by Brenda LaMalfa accompanied by David Giebler

Marshall Smith (A letter – see below – is read by Mary Nemetz).

Susie LeGault

Lisa LeBoeuf

Chris Goltz (A letter from the Equity actor who goes by Chris Logan is read by Jon Ruatti).

Max Frost (He represents Green Bay area’s Evergreen Theatre; he’s source of the “Lust” story).

Musical Interlude

Georgia” from “1940’s Radio Hour” by April Strom-Johnson (who is performing in “Guys and Dolls” with Music Theatre of St. Norbert College in De Pere)

Herbert L. Williams Memorial Fund (to upgrade the theater)

John Seaborg (He’s the architect whose middle initial is “L”).

Lee Bunting

Rebecca Stone Thornberry (Theatre on the Bay’s artistic director) and John Thornberry (see below)

Musical Interlude

“You Made Me Love You” by Lani Kakuk (This is inspired by the Judy Garland version of the song, told as if she were writing to Clark Gable. Lani Kakuk’s version has her writing to Herb Williams. As she sings, images of Herb Williams in his many Theatre on the Bay roles are projected on a screen on the stage; the moods in the song are matched to the moods Herb Williams portrayed. In the middle of the song, Lani Kakuk thanks Herb Williams for the impact he’s had on her life. The performances of Bill Witt, Brenda LaMalfa, April Strom Johnson and Lani Kakuk speak to the greatness of Herb Williams).

Finale

“The Party’s Over Now” by Noel Coward read by Greg LeGault (He says his farewell to Herb Williams, seen on a projected image behind him, and is joined by his wife).

Jon Ruatti, who cared for Herb Williams in his final years, closes the program and invites the audience to the military presentation outside, observing Herb Williams’ years in the Air Force. A reception follows in the cafeteria. In the evening, on the stage where the tribute took place, “Cabaret” is performed.

Now, four of the speeches.

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The one that Mary Nemetz read from Marshall Smith is titled, “Herb, irrepressibly unique.” I chose it because it gives an insider’s view of Herb Williams, the theater guy.

The summers I spent with Herb Williams in Marinette were always dramatic, and not all the drama was onstage. Herb loved how it all played out. The shows I remember generally carried emotional heft – some were brave, like the production of ‘Boys in the Band’ that advertisers threatened to boycott and nuns and priests showed up to in droves in our audience; the first, I think, Midwest production of Sondheim’s brilliant but daunting ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ that had left New York audiences scratching their heads at the over-the-top satire and must have left some TOB theatergoers dazed and confused; a lovely mounting of ‘Fiddler’ with his Herbness as Tevye.

I think I most remember our ‘How to Succeed,’ the first musical I directed, if my memory serves me well, for TOB. I remember standing with startling clarity Herb’s audition. He came out with characteristic flair and sang ‘Broadway Baby’ from ‘Follies.’ I knew then I was in for a treat. His Bud Frump was juicy, bitchy and brilliant.

And of course there were our many shared meals in too many homes of Herb’s and sometimes mine that I can barely remember – the homes I barely remember, the meals I won’t ever forget. United by a love of food, theatre and interpersonal dramas, Herb and I shared summers of manic happiness and deep depression, often in the same day.

Herb cooked in the kitchen and also in life, with friends and associates as ingredients. Sometimes the recipes were tasty, sometimes not. But it would have been impossible to forget how totally important they all seemed at the time.

There was no escaping the summer beauty, the idyll of all the ups and downs, and the sadness at the end when the last note of the last show had been sung.

I remember playing Don Quixote in ‘Man of La Mancha’ my last summer there. At the end of the production, the only people speaking to me were my Aldonza and Sancho Ponza. Such was the way of it – the play played out on stage and off. And did I always miss it afterwards – oh yes, of course I did.

I will be sorry not to see many I would have liked to hug and reminisce with. But I am directing one of the first authorized small company productions of Chris Durang’s 2013 Tony Award winner, ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.’ We open on July 25. I looked into flying a red eye to Green Bay on the 26th but could not work it out.

So I pay earnest and heartfelt tribute to a Broadway Baby who I know is still entertaining in some realm with panache and poise in the center of a very bright spotlight.

Love to Herb, to all of you who loved him as I did, and rode the Herb train on our many always exciting summer excursions.

Respectfully,

Marshall Smith,

Idyllwild, California

+++

Ted Bilek read, with theatrical acumen, a “document” that his mother, actress Mary Jean Bilek, gave to Herb Williams. I chose it for its delicious satire.

Ye had no Theatre Artistic Director before him. Therefore, all ye “little people” – ye civil and academic staff and ye dean – hear now,

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

According to Herbert L. Williams

(the King Herbert Version)

I.                    Thou shalt sense thy director’s fragile artistic temperament and proceed in ways that are pleasing to him.

II.                  Thou shalt provide him with promptness each Monday morning on unsoiled copy of Variety.

III.                Thou shalt not diet during working hours.

IV.              Thou shalt not question they theatre director’s budget.

V.                Thou shalt milk the land to bring thy theatre director joy, peace, and contentment.

VI.              Thou shalt celebrate, with ringing of bells and other appropriate forms of jubilation, thy theatre director’s changes in show titles and production dates.

VII.            Thou shalt attend every Theatre on the Bay production – thou and thy spouse, thy children, thy manservant, thy maidservant, thy doctor, thy lawyer, thy dentist, thy plumber, thy electrician, thy sister from Des Moines and thy brother-in-law from Omaha.

VIII.          Thou shalt make only flattering references to thy theatre director’s current weight, age, and hairline.

IX.               Bow down thyself to thy theatre director and serve him.

X.                 Honor thy theatre director that thy days may be long upon the land that Marinette County giveth thee.

mjb

2/11/85

 

+++

John Thornberry stepped out from behind the scenes to join his TOB artistic director wife, Rebecca Stone Thornberry, to read his remarks. John Thornberry is director of “Cabaret.” I chose his remarks because of his thoughts of, Why do we, as human beings, put on plays?

I met Herb Williams only once. He was kind enough to ask me, as a sound designer, about the music sources I used for “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I’d just finished playing Otto Frank, which was certainly flashier, and for which he congratulated me, but what he wanted to know first was more about the details that came together to make that show come alive for the audience.
Someone like that truly appreciates the small miracles and annoyances and heartaches that make theatre happen on a regular basis. Why do we do it? William Shakespeare wrote, “Oh, what a piece of work is man.” Hamlet says that ironically, but I like to think Herb might have said it with admiration and awe. People aren’t perfect, but we’re worth the time to celebrate and explore, foibles and follies and all. That’s why we do and see theatre – to gather and discover who we are, to know ourselves collectively a little better.
Herb Williams has a substantial legacy, embodied in this theatre and in all of you, to show for his journey, but he understood there were no guarantees when he began Theatre on the Bay. Theatre is a risk – financial and artistic, but more importantly, emotional. Even in the lightest of comedies, we take the stage to intentionally poke our noses into things that people don’t necessarily want to look at or think about, because those things make us who we are. TOB has been on a human adventure for nearly half a century, because Herb Williams understood that such exploration and risk is our business. It’s why you’ve been coming here for so many years, and why we’re here now. 
As you remember all that Herb Williams gave us through his art and hard work, raise a glass to the risks that began this theatre and have sustained it for five decades. Then raise it again, and pledge yourselves to stand with us and revel in all of the risks yet to come on this stage. There will be plenty of them – and they’re going to be grand. Thank you.

+++

The final speech is mine. I was invited to “say a few words.”

Imagine a prism.

Herb Williams was a prism.

From one light… many.

One light… many colors.

A prism can be a raindrop or a rainstorm.

It’s one source of light that produces many colors.

Herb Williams colored our lives.

The prism is an instrument of change.

Herb Williams was an instrument of change.

Think of all the plays he brought here to Marinette.

All the plays.

All the thoughts.

All the experiences from the world over.

Think of all the audiences who saw all the plays.

Herb Williams changed Marinette.

He went on to do his thing in the Green Bay area.

And the Appleton area.

Think of all the productions.

All the performances.

All the ideas.

All the adventures.

All the fun.

All the drama.

And all the people.

Herb Williams led in unspoken ways.

People believed in him.

He was not a preacher or a politician – and people believed in him.

Herb Williams was a leader.

It doesn’t happen often that a person comes along who leads just by being.

A prism just is.

Herb Williams was.

Herb Williams still is.

This day and this place reflect this special person who walked our way.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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