My Mother and I Shared a Common Love of Theatre

August 25, 2017
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With my mom, Willie Cork, 2016

These remarks were delivered at my mother’s funeral on August 23, 2017. She died on August 19 at the age of 79 from cancer.

All that I am comes from my parents, and although there were some challenging times growing up, with many moves from state, to state, to state, through it all my mother remained strong, focused on providing for her family.

My mother and I shared a love of musical theatre, and beginning in 1989 with The Music Man she came to every one of my shows in Connecticut, including my most recent, a performance in Will Rogers’ USA at my church in Glastonbury last summer.

In 2012 I packed everything in my car and took the show to a few libraries in Florida so that my mom and dad could see it. My dad was my roadie, and as his memory was already failing, each of the three times he saw it was a new experience for him.

A few lines from Will that I think relate to my mother very well:

Now I don’t give advice folks, but boy if I did, I would just say you’re only on this Earth a very short time. For heaven sakes, have a few laughs folks, and don’t take things too serious, especially yourselves.

Just live your life so you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip, that’s all.

Listen here, you may not see things my way, folks. Why in heaven’s name should you? I may not see things your way. Why should I? That’s America, I believe.

Another family favorite is the musical Man of La Mancha, which Jason and I appeared in together at the Strand Theatre in Seymour, Connecticut. Above the theatre is the Knights of Columbus Hall which was our dressing room. Often during shows downstairs we could hear the dances going on upstairs. One time a polka band was playing, “In Heaven There is No Beer” during a dramatic moment on stage. After her death I learned that my mom’s mother, who we called, “Ma,” went to dances there when she was young. She often said, “I wish I had been a singer and a dancer.”

One of my mom’s favorite shows was Les Miserables, and most of the time that I rode in her car the soundtrack was playing. I’ll always remember her when I hear these words:

Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart echoes the beating the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes!

Words like these remind me of the power of theatre to lift us up when we face challenges, and to find connections with the challenges of others. My nickname is, “The Unsinkable Cork,” and I think that my mom was unsinkable too.

I also thought of my mom this week when Jerry Lewis died one day after she did, and the way that he closed each of his annual telethons, with an anthem from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel. I think we all need a little courage this week. My mother had it in spades.

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone

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Gene Wilder: Dancing Through Life

August 30, 2016
VARIOUS - 1979

Photo credit: Steve Wood/REX/Shutterstock

Gene Wilder died yesterday, and my Facebook feed rapidly filled with remembrances. I was certainly sad, because he made me, and countless others, so happy.

I’ve been thinking about Wilder’s films, and his acting performances. Among my favorites is, “Silver Steak,” a 1976 film about murder, romance and intrigue on a long distance train trip. In the film, Wilder’s first pairing with Richard Pryor, he keeps getting thrown off the train. And there was a memorable scene in a biplane. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s a riot.

In my view what made Gene Wilder unique was not the strength that he brought out in his characters, but rather their flaws and weaknesses. Whether it was his dependence on a blue blanket in, “The Producers,” his drinking problem in, “Blazing Saddles,” or his pure eccentricity in, “Young Frankenstein,” his struggles were in plain view. And in each case, his characters overcame obstacles to move forward.

Dr. Frankenstein, to the monster: “Hello, handsome! You’re a good-looking fellow, do you know that? People laugh at you, people hate you, but why do they hate you? Because… they are jealous! Look at that boyish face. Look at that sweet smile…”

Behind the scenes, we now know that Gene Wilder was suffering from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease for the past three years.

I also learned today that Gene Wilder was bullied and sexually assaulted in school as a teenager.

As Hal Holbrook said in his book, “Harold,”

“An actor’s little gold mine is his secret nest of feelings, born of the way life has treated him and how he has chosen to respond to it.”

Holbrook, one of our finest American actors, had been beaten by his schoolmaster.

As an actor who has also performed comedy and as a boy who was bullied in school, I can understand the need to form connections and find joy inside to share our gifts with others on the outside.

In reading about him online today I learned some other things about Gene Wilder. His birth name was Jerome Silberman. He was a fellow veteran of the United States Army. His cancer was in full remission after treatment with chemotherapy and adult stem cells.

After his wife Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer, he co-founded Gilda’s Club, which has the motto, “no one should face cancer alone.”

While it is easy to remember Gilda and imagine the fun that they had together, I was also reminded by many Twitter posts that he leaves behind his wife since 1991, Karen Boyer.

He left us with genuine humility and dignity, qualities that are often missing in a world today that is so filled with the latest gossip and rumors about people that have no impact on our lives at all.

Gene Wilder’s work formed a big part of my life’s journey, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t recite lines from “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” from memory, or wish that I had a golden ticket to join Willy Wonka on a boat ride through his chocolate factory.

“Charlie: What was that we just went through?

Wonka: Hsawaknow.

Mrs. Teevee: Is that Japanese?

Wonka: No, that’s Wonkawash spelled backwards.”

As the statement from his family said, “It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.”

“A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” – Willy Wonka