My over-arching challenge here is to write this post – the first in an occasional series – in such a way that it will keep you smiling even if it may, at first, give you pause. But, I know in my heart that this is all about love, so, please dear cousin, bear with me while I introduce the inspiration behind these “Throwback Thursday: Gone Too Soon” posts and what I hope to accomplish by writing them.
First of all, I am writing them for me. Back in the days when my friends were dropping like flies, and daily life as a gay man in New York City was largely surreal, people on the outside would ask me how I was dealing with the emotional strain of losing so many close friends in such short order. “It’s not possible to really mourn for them,” I would reply, “There are just too many, and they are falling too fast, so I store their memories in little jars on an imaginary shelf in my mind, and every now and then I take them down one at a time, dust them off, and for a few minutes remember their smiles and our times together before putting them back on the shelf.”
We were all that way back then. We had to be. But all those dusty jars – all those wonderful souls – are still up on that shelf and still awaiting the proper attention they never received, so this series of posts are my way of taking them down and pouring out their contents that they may finally and forever be given the love and honor they so absolutely deserve. This is also, it seems to me, the right time to honor these memories for two solid reasons. First, only now are there enough online resources available to really research their histories (through Ancestry.com where you can find many yearbooks and personal facts, as well as many other Google-able resources that simply didn’t exist even five years ago), but, conversely, the longer I wait, the more distant these recollections become, so the sooner the better.
Secondly, I am writing this series for those of us who died. They were gone too soon and are already fading into obscurity regardless of how extraordinary they may have been or how clear it was to those who knew them that they were headed for great things – until they weren’t. Most of those who fell from HIV in the 80s and 90s, were in their late 20s or 30s, even 40s and 50s, so were well on their way to making some sort of mark in their chosen professions, and for those in New York this was even more true since almost all of us arrived from the provinces having made our way here under our own steam and driven by our own dreams. It is also sadly true that the great majority of the gay men I knew in NYC in those days had been completely disowned by their families, so if and when they got sick and were dying, there were all-too-often no mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters to come to their aid, nor to keep their memories alive once they had gone. Rejected at home, many of us had long ago learned to create surrogate families of friends to fill the need. Until the plague arrived, and one by one, our personal supports – those we thought would be our lifelong friends – fell out from under us, leaving only the few of us remaining to tell their tales once they were gone. And so I shall, as best I can. If not now, when? have no choice but to try.
Thirdly, I am doing this for you, and especially the Xers and Millennials among our friends who have, blessedly, no memory of HIV as a death sentence. It has now been 21 years since the pharmaceutical “cocktail” appeared that turned the infection into something “manageable,” so it is completely impossible for anyone younger than 30 have any idea what it was like in those dark years. Anecdotally, I was born only five years after WWII ended, yet I don’t have a clue what that must have been like, however fertile my imagination may be, so the same must also be true for those of you who matured into your own identities after 1995. Frankly, this is a wonderful thing, and I wouldn’t wish the torture of living through those days on anyone, but what you are also missing are these stories. Some are stories of brilliance, others of courage and yet others of of constant renewal of spirit in the face of such horrors, but all of them are stories that should be told before they are lost in the mists of time.
So, see, we made it through the hard part. Thanks for sticking with me. I’m only going to include this introduction once, so future TBT:GTS installments will only include the personal tribute. It is also my hope to write these memorials in a standardized way so to provide any others who might want to write TBT:GTS tributes of their own with a format to follow.
TBT:GTS#1 RANDALL ROBBINS, Actor, Teacher, Leader, Friend
How I Knew Him
In 1973, fully two years before actor Carolyn Kirsch originated the part of Lois in the original cast of A Chorus Line, she journeyed to Birmingham to work with James Hatcher at Town and Gown Theater choreographing the show Company, which was on her performance resume. Unfortunately, shortly before the show was to open, one of the local actors took ill, so Carolyn suggested that Hatch import from New York a friend of hers to play the part who she knew already had it down, a tall, blonde, all-American looking fellow named Randall Robbins who had just wrapped up performing with her in the Company National Tour.
Of course, there was no budget for this, so Hatch asked me to help out by letting Randy bunk in my Southside apartment for the three weeks he would be in town (two weeks for rehearsals and one of performances). This was more than enough time to become good friends, though after those few weeks, it would be some years before we would recharge our connection when I moved to New York after law school in 1978.
Several times, over the next few years, I joined Randy for dinner in his apartment in an old brownstone on West 55th street where we would remember fun times in Birmingham, or talk about his latest show, or he would coach me on acting. Our last dinner was in early 1981. 1980 had been a great year for him with his movie debut in “Ordinary People,” and appearing as FDR all across the U.S. in a National Touring company of “Annie,” so I had expected him to be full of life and
enthusiasm, but found him unusually subdued. Then, as we were having after-dinner coffee, he shared with me that for some years he had been in a clandestine relationship with an NYU professor (hence the closet) who lived in the next apartment, but he was very concerned because his friend, Andrew, was very, very ill – simply wasting away to nothing – but the doctors couldn’t seem to find what was wrong with him. Shortly after that meal, Andrew died, still undiagnosed, but soon to be recognized as one of the first 100 known victims of AIDS. Sadly, Randy was soon to follow. He was the first person I knew to be infected, and the first of dozens of my friends to die.
Birth and Family: Randall Robbins (no middle name) was born in Sanford, Seminole
County, Florida in late 1939, the youngest of five children. His father, Kenneth, was a boilermaker by trade who had moved from Ohio to South Florida in his youth, where he met Randy’s mother, Signa (nee Vihlen), the daughter of Swedish immigrants, who
had also moved to Florida as a child of four after being born in Birmingham AL. No doubt Randy’s Nordic good looks came from his mother’s side of the family, but sadly, she died when Randy was only ten years old.
Schools: Thanks to Ancestry.com I was able to find Randy’s Seminole High School (Sanford) yearbook photos from his freshman, sophomore and junior years. Clearly both popular and ambitious, in a student body of over 3000 students in four grades, he managed to be elected treasurer of both his Freshman and Sophomore classes (’54 and ’55), and secretary of the Honor Society his junior year (’56).
Curiously, however, he is nowhere to be found in the 1957 yearbook – which should have been his senior year. I do know that he was disowned by his family at some point, and it may well have been around this time, given that his siblings were already out of the house, his father was pushing 60, and he had just enjoyed his first theatrical success, playing, perhaps ironically, the role of “Father” in that year’s Junior Class Play, “Father Knows Best.”
After Leaving Home: Though I have tried for several days to find more information, the years from ’57 until he first appears in the theatre databases in 1971 as a cast member in Company are a complete mystery to me and are likely to remain so. Clearly, at some point in the 60s he arrived in New York to begin acting in earnest, and he wasted no time signing on with the legendary acting coach Uta Hagen, who quickly became both his hero and his inspiration. That said, once he launched his career in earnest, he was able to keep it moving up and onward with significant success. As best I have been able to reconstruct his resume, it includes:
1971: First National Tour of Company
1972: Stock Tour of Company
1973: Westport Playhouse 6 RMS RIV VU during the summer, (this was also the year we met when he journeyed to Birmingham to appear in Company at Town and Gown)
1974: Original cast of Good News revival opening in Boston and touring nationally for a year before opening on Broadway on December 23, 1974
1975: Off Broadway: And So to Bed, a counter-intuitive comedy about the sex life of Samuel Pepys
1977: Summer run of Company at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera; then, that fall, he took on the Melvyn Douglas role in a revival of Glad Tidings at Equity Library Theatre.
1978-1980: Played the role of FDR in the Second National Tour of Annie for nearly two years.
1980: Like so many of his fellow Uta Hagen students (Al Pacino, Charles Grodin, Jason Robards, Geraldine Page and dozens of others), Randy finally made the trip to Hollywood to launch his cinematic career in what would turn out to be the most honored film of the year, Ordinary People. Over the moon about getting the part, he could hardly have known that it would be both his first and last movie role, as he became ill the very next year and died soon thereafter.
It is, of course, impossible to say what would have been, had Randy lived and continued to hone his craft and lift his rising star, but, just by looking at his contemporaries, it is not that difficult to say what might have been. There are many steppingstones on the road to succeeding as an actor, and he had already walked so many of them: He had played on Broadway, had starred in two Off-Broadway Shows, had toured the country in leading roles in Company (over and over again) and Annie, and, yes, he had finally broken through to the silver screen in one of the most highly-honored films of all time. And he was barely 40.
Every time I spent an evening with Randy, we would also spend a few minutes honing my craft. He would have me recite some poem or other that I had written and then work with me on my delivery, turning recitation into performance. These were not lessons that I asked for or encouraged, but we always got around to them after some wine. They were really, I think, for him. He truly loved to teach, and he was very good at it.
Which is why, at the end of the day, my best guess is that he would have continued to build his credits in the movies and on Broadway, but would also have become a truly great acting teacher in the footsteps of his beloved Ms. Hagen and so many other great acting teachers who thrived in mid-20th Century New York City. Uta Hagen never stopped performing on the stage and in films, and I’m sure that Randy would have continued performing, as well, but his strongest drive, it seems to me, was to help those around him become better – better as actors, and as human beings.
So I salute you, Randy Robbins, even as I mourn you, finally, as fully as I should. God speed my friend, and may you always hit your spot.
This may all seem very far away and long ago to you, dear reader, and perhaps the loss to mankind of this one person, however talented or bright, may not seem so tragic this many years hence, but this is only the first extraordinary story of many I hope to tell, and after the first few are taken in, a picture begins to form in the mind of just what a tremendous loss we have suffered, what a large slice is missing from the Great American Cultural Pie.
There have been, of course, other attempts to honor these memories, through the quilt and other quiet memorials here and there, particularly in New York City churches and such, and in those instances when the AIDS quilt includes squares dedicated to the people I intend to spotlight with these tributes, I will surely include those photos. But however moving the quilt truly is, many of those we lost, including Randy and Andrew, are simply not there to be found. Nevertheless, Randy and Andrew were not completely forgotten by those they left behind. In 1985, they were honored by the community as the 54th Street to 55th Street block – their block – of the lavender stripe painted down Fifth Avenue to demark the route of that year’s Gay Pride Parade was dedicated in their names. (I am still trying to get more information about this, and when I do learn more, I will edit it into this post.)
This has been TBT:GTS#1, the first of a series of occasional posts that are long overdue. Thank you for your time, your attention, and your prayers.
© 2016 George Thomas Wilson, all rights reserved.