Sunday, May 28, 2006

Death In Venice

When we arrived home from our trip to Europe, there was an urgent phone message from Dick (Dickie) Bell, one of Jim's lifelong actor pals. The message was simply to call. We left a message for him, saying we'd be up and that we wanted to hear from him ASAP.

Jim looked at me and said, with horror, "It's Jimmy Rilley. The last time Dickie left me a message like that, George had died." (George was Dickie's longtime partner).

When Dickie finally called, he confirmed the news. Jim wept softly down in the living room as he received the news. I was up in my loft, so I could hear him but I had no feelings about it. My heart felt dead and my eyes were dry. I wasn't even poked in the chest with sadness or recognition. No shock. No feelings whatsoever.

I chalked it up to the fact that I was so dead tired. 12 long hours of a plane trip from Germany, making it about 3:00AM by our bodies, had left me emotionally and physically numb.

Turns out he died the day we left to go on our trip 20 days ago. But Jimmy's partner/husband, Bart, instructed Dickie to wait on giving us the news, so that we would just enjoy our time on the ship and in the Mediterranean.

"It's so funny," I heard Jim say, "but he was on our minds the whole time. We even shot a bunch of video just for him, addressing things directly to him -- 'If only Rilley were here.'"

Jim was singing selections from "Do I Hear A Waltz?" while standing on the Rialto bridge in Venice or sitting at a open air cafe drinking latte on top of a cliffside city in Sicily. Our plan was to make a whole video just for him because he has been physically disabled for a number of years from a horrible massive stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body.

For a long time, he had been able to move slowly using a cane, so he was still able to go from his home in Westchester to see his beloved New York theatre.

Rilley was the ultimate show queen. His favorite musical was Sondheim's "Follies" of which he saw nearly every performance of the spectacular original production.

But unlike the lead character in the new (and totally hilarious) Tony-nominated sensation, "The Drowsy Chaperone," who plays a record and "sees" his treasured shows come to life in his apartment, with actors springing from walls and entering from the refrigerator, when Rilley told you about his favorite musicals, he would perform he entire show himself -- all 300 and some pounds of him -- by grabbing sheets, towels, pillowcases, lamps, and other assorted props and draping himself in them, perfectly recreating the costumes AND the choreography.

There's a legendary (and true) story about Rilley and "Follies." It was the 70s. I think the show had long ended its brief, commercially unsuccessful run. And Rilley decided he was going to schedule a performance in a friend's apartment -- "scheduling" being a formal term for what was more like, "Are we drunk enough to do 'Follies?'"

(The other term for these little costumes events was "Sheet Class.")

Rilley is literally doing all the roles, which consist of a number of show girls who walk around the stage like ghosts. He remembers every single dip, turn, head tilt and wrist twist. You have to picture this enormous man dressed in sheets and towels to simulate tall ghostly looking dead show girls. The cast album from "Follies" blaring.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door.

A voice, "I heard 'Follies' was here tonight."

In walked Michael Bennett (the celebrated man who directed and choreographed 'Follies,' and, later, 'A Chorus Line').

My Jim said Rilley looked petrified. Here was Michael Bennett himself.

He walks into the room, plops himself down in front, and says, "Start it over from the beginning."

Rilley starts over. He doing the actors, he's lip-synching the songs, he's hopping all over the place trying to do all the chorus girls.

Suddenly, Michael Bennett leaps up and shouts, "Stop! I won't let you do this any longer!"

Everyone froze.

"NOT WITHOUT ME!!" And he jumps up, grabs some sheets and joins in on the choreography. He couldn't believe Rilley remembered every step.

Rilley was like one of the graceful hippopotamuses you see in the Disney cartoon. He had all this bulk, but he could almost go up on point and make you think he was the most graceful man in the room when he danced. It was impossible to be in a room with him and not be laughing and joyful just at his very presence.

But then it happened. He was at a friend's apartment alone when he fell. It took him forever, but he had to crawl across the floor and reach up to unlatch a bar that had been placed in front of the door to keep it from being opened. The police and emergency units were trying to get in.

By then, we were already living out in California, so we had no chance to see him on any regular basis. Once, when Jimmy was doing something in New York, I took the train out there myself just to sit with him. He had great courage, and he spent a lot of years fighting for life, going through physical rehabilitation exercises -- always painful, always intense -- which always seemed to fail and leave him a little worse off every year.

Last time couple times I spoke with him on the phone, he said to me, "Stevie, is it okay to want to die? Did you ever want to? I just don't think I can keep going like this."

He had just fallen again, and was now completely incapacitated. His lover, Bart, ever faithful, always by his side, never waivered; never faltered.

I loved their relationship. For the longest time, Rilley was having love troubles. He blamed it on being fat or being unlovable. But Bart. This totally sweet little Jewish guy just fell for Rilley like a ton of bricks. I had said that Rilley added glamour to Bart's life. Whatever it was, I adored them as a couple and I adored how much Bart really l0ved and cared for Rilley.

The word is that he had another massive stroke. Bart was there.

The thing that makes me sad and, finally, brings tears to my eyes is not so much the fact that he has died -- everyone is going to die someday -- but that he struggled so much in his final days. For a guy who was so light on his feet, who loved being physical, who loved musical theatre, who never failed to throw just a bit of glamour and class into every room he walked into, it only broke my heart to hear him telling me how difficult it was, how heartbroken he was that he simply had no power over his legs and hand anymore.

He would speak to me on a heart level. "Steven," he would say when got serious and it was just the two of us on the phone, "you've been through this. You know what I'm feeling here."

I would tell him that I did, but I don't know if anyone could. I could tell him I remember being so sick that I could have imagined wanting to pull the switch. But I don't think I ever was in his shoes. Not really.

I'm sorry, Rilley. I couldn't really know what you were going through. Right now, as I sit here typing away, my eyes are starting to burn. It is dawning me what this world will be without you. We have some old videos and things somewhere around here. Was it the one where you recreated all the costumes from "Coco" while Jim Brochu sat there lip syncing for Katherine Hepburn? Or was it your brilliant and almost chilling recreation of Bette Davis in our 3-minute version of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" Or do we still have that murky tape of you doing "Follies" over at Midge's house? Or the gypsy dance performed with 20 shirts tied to your waist with a belt?

I think what we'll do is cut them all together, put you back up on your feet and watch you dance again.

A Jimmy Rilley Film and Dance Festival.

Here's to you, Rilley. You were there on the SS Galileo the day Jimmy and I met 21 years ago this weekend.


You are an icon of theatre for me. No star looms in my mind larger than you and your brilliant creative spirit. I cannot imagine what it must be like for you now to be hanging out with Michael Bennett, the man you idolized. Dance across the stars, my friend. We who are bound here on earth salute you.


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