Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Will Connolly, 1943-2012

WillFB.jpg (33837 bytes) "I am just glum," Walt said, wandering around the house aimlessly.  We had just read our e-mail and learned that our friend Will Connolly had died.  Walt expressed what I was feeling too.  Another huge "presence" in the world had left it, and though his death was not unexpected, it still was a shock.
Will was our friend for decades.  I don't know how long.  Walt and I began ushering for The Lamplighters in the 1960s.  Will joined the company in 1970 and we watched him move up the ranks to the principal baritone roles.  Here he is as Samuel in Pirates of Penzance...I'm not sure if that is his hair or not!

WillSamuel.jpg (80105 bytes)

Will became a more personal friend during my years working for The Lamplighters.  He, Gilbert and Henry Anderson were great friends, who liked to go on great adventures but be "home in time for dinner."  As my friendship with Gilbert grew, so, too, did my friendship with Will.

We were both born the same year, but he was a bit younger than I.   His father, also Will Connolly, had been a nationally famous sports writer for The San Francisco Chronicle.  At the time of his death, Will had been trying to figure out how to republish some of his father's better known columns on the Internet.   This one was one of three that I found on a site called "Western Neighborhood Projects," stories about a specific section of San Francisco. (Will, a native San Franciscan, was an expert on the city and had once worked as a tour guide.)

Will's mother was no slouch either, having received many, many honors and awards for her work as an advocate for the mentally disabled.  Her 2003 obituary is well worth taking the time to read.

When Gilbert died in 1986, Will and I, along with Henry and his wife Willa, took on the care of Gilbert's family during the week following the death.   While others in the Lamplighters took on the task of planning the memorial service, we were meeting with the people who would be handling his remains, meeting with the doctors who tended him at the end, and doing the practical thing.

When we had Gilbert put to rest, Will stepped in to be "Uncle Will" to Gilbert's niece Susie and her daughter Rachel.  Rachel, sadly never got to know her Uncle Buddy (Gilbert) but Will was a big presence in her life and visited her and Susie around the country several times over the past 20+ years.  (He, Walt and I flew to Oklahoma for Susie's bat mitzvah, in fact, and we went to St. Louis to be there for the production of the first play she ever directed.)  He was as proud of Rachel's theatrical successes as if he were her real uncle.

Will.jpg (38664 bytes)A year after Gilbert's death, Willa, Henry, Will and I, along with Diana Dorman, contractor for the orchestra, got together for a memorial dinner.  Out of that grew the GRUB, the name of which I never COULD remember.  The "something reinternment of Uncle Buddy."  It was a name Will dreamed up.  It was our yearly Gilbert memorial dinner, a group which, at its height had 17 attendees.  Will made all the arrangements and when I gently suggested calling a halt to it six years ago,on the 20th anniversary of Gilbert's death (more years than most of us knew him in life), it was Will who insisted we keep going.  (With Will now gone, and Walt and I going to be in Europe on the anniversary this year, this may finally be the year we stop meeting every July.)

Will was one of the funniest people I ever knew.  He always had a joke, a pun, a quip, a snide aside.  He found humor in all things and did one of the best W. C. Fields imitations.  He was born to play W.C. Fields  and, in fact, did play him in a Lamplighter Gala one year, and he even drove to Davis for Walt's 50th birthday party to sing "The Fatal Glass of Beer" from Fields' movie of the same name, accompanying himself on the zither.

But his finest hour may have been as a nerdy chiropterologist (one who studies bats).  Will embraced nerdhood and was so successful, the character was reprised in a later Gala.
Shelley Johnson recalls her favorite moment with Will on stage during that Gala:
It’s the closest I’ve come to Totally Losing It onstage. We were in a Gala where I was in the role of a Winery owner (a la the old TV series “Falcon Crest”) I was wearing an ‘80’s power suit and Will was playing a total nerd Chiropterologist; leading his flock of followers into the barns to research bats. He was dressed in an outlandishly goofy outfit – complete with a bat hat. His demeanor –hilarious.

Of course, the surprise was that when suddenly no one was around - Will & I did an “Oh Rapture” and ran onto each other’s arms center stage.

At that point he surreptitiously pulled the string under his chin on the bat hat so that the wings of the bat on his head rose: oh so slowly..... Well, you can imagine. The audience was howling. If I had not been able to bury my face in his chest and shake for a bit I would not have been able to stand up – much less continue.
We last saw Will a couple of months ago at a Lamplighter party.   He arrived quite late and Walt and I met him on the stairs as we were leaving.   He did not look well and confessed he felt "terrible."  I had this ominous premonition that I would never see him again.  I am sorry that feeling turned out to be accurate.

Stories of Will are legion and will be circulating throughout his very large circle of friends for weeks, I'm sure.  The one I shared was this:

Will and Gilbert were great friends. Will was also not particularly known for promptness. Gilbert one time made arrangements for Will to meet at his house, and was very specific about the time. He HAD to get there on time. Amazingly, Will showed up, right on time. Gilbert opened the door, looked at him and said "Good. I just wanted to see if you could really do it." and then closed the door again.

When I heard of Will's death I had the image of Will showing up at the pearly gates and Gilbert there to meet him with a "good--I just wanted to see if you could really do it" before shutting the door and sending him back to life again.

But I guess that probably isn't the way it works now.  

Ironically, Will died on the anniversary of Gilbert's sister's death.

Peggy Overshiner, Jeanne Ziaja, Gilbert, Mary Brown, June Wilkins, Arthur Contrad, Adrian McNamara, Ashton Bisbee ... there are so many Lamplighter principals in Heaven now, I'm almost looking forward to joining them myself, to see them all perform one more time!

WILL'S OBITUARY:  William (Will) Philip Connolly William (Will) Connolly, a lifelong resident of San Francisco, died April 24th at St. Mary's Hospital after a short illness. Will, born April 14, 1943, was the son of the late Will Connolly, a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner; and Margarete Connolly, an activist for the developmentally disabled. He attended St. Brendan's Elementary School, St. Ignatius High School and Lincoln High School. Will was a history buff and proudly received a Bachelor of Science Degree in U.S. History from the University of San Francisco at the age of 57. Will's greatest passion was music. He was a member of the Bohemian Club Aviary Men's Chorus, Lamplighters Musical Theatre Group, St. Francis Yacht Club Sons of the Sea, served as a cantor at St. Brendan's Catholic Church, and was a former member of the San Francisco Boys Chorus. He was also a member of the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, former board member of Creativity Explored, an art program for developmentally disabled adults, Irish Literary and Historical Society, Musical Days in Forest Hill (board member), Welsh American Society of Northern California. Will is survived by his brother Paul (Gail) Connolly and sister Anne Connolly; nieces Christina Stark, Paula Suiso, Elizabeth Thomas and eight great-nieces and nephews; as well as Malone and Mahoney cousins and many, many friends with whom he sang and laughed.


Kwizgiver said...

I am sorry for your loss.

Anonymous said...

He was a rare bird and will be missed. Sorry for your loss and thanks for the upbeat obit.


Patrick L said...

Thank you for these thoughts and remembrances. They are a wonderful way to think of Will.


Patrick Leveque

Roberta Guise said...

What a heartfelt write-up about Will, thanks so much. I spent time with him during the days of planning the drop-down stage during the SERC 90s remodel. He was clearly the expert on how to fit a functional stage into a tiny space.

Gosh. We'll miss you Will. Safe travels in the big beyond...

Anonymous said...

We'll be doing a brief tribute to Will tomorrow (Saturday, March 9, 2013) at the South End Rowing Club's St. Patrick's Day luncheon. Will was the emcee for this event many times and we will be presenting a photo and a song (Eileen Aroon) to the club in his memory.

-Stephen Saxon.