Death is a great revivalist, a memorialist, a lest-we-forget presence. At year’s end, the task of remembering those who we have lost in the past 12 months, those who have left, the “dearly departed,” the passed, becomes singular.
As always, the task — a kind of culling and rounding up of those folks we either knew directly or knew of — tells us a lot about the limits and the reach of fame. There are both the people we loved for their gifts alone and those who managed to tap-dance into the annals of life for one reason or another, for a gift they had, and how that gift reverberates in our memories as songs, plays, elections, tragedy or comedy, as things, events, happenings, dates that were not quite forgettable or totally unforgettable.
Proximity — like intimacy — is a factor. Probably no person in the Washington area revealed his true value in his passing than Jim Vance, the charisma-rich, pioneer African American anchorman at WRC Channel 4. When he died, after decades as a newsman, an anchor, a personality and just generally an unforgettable human being (after a shockingly sudden cancer diagnosis), it seemed to an astonishing number of people that he had been right in our midst, close to us, just about every night we cared to catch the news, defining the essence and best of television news in the process.
Unlike the more famous but in some ways less known individuals who glide through our lives and make news and music, he was our neighbor, the man we encountered over the airwaves, to be sure, but also the guy out and about in electronic land who remained fully human.
If you wanted fully human, and unforgettable, there was also Joel Markowitz, who operated in a different atmosphere.
Markowitz, who died of ALS at the age of 60 in November, was a creature of the theater world, that of Washington and that of the world. He was a chronicler, a critic, publisher and founder of DC Metro Theater Arts, a stylish website filled with knowledge, expertise and total passion, which spilled over from its pages into the receptive hearts of its theater-maven readers.
He was in truth, for all his opinions and the people and things he loved, a spokesman for theater, the best kind it could get. He was an original, a talker, a promoter who was forever getting people on board: to a play, a party, a trip to New York, a moment, a website (his).
I saw him often until recently, and I looked forward to it — at openings, at the Helen Hayes Awards interviewing actors and other artists. He made a remarkable amount of treasured noise. For all his physical frailties, he prided himself on covering all the productions in a Capital Fringe Festival.
In our life, we become people of families — even if, technically, we have none. These families, if you will, which we share with others, exist in our minds and memories. Here for one more time are some of those who one way or another have finagled their time on earth into the memories of those who cherish (or, in one case or two, deplore) them.
Mary Tyler Moore — An actress, a comedienne, that open, sparkly face, lovely but also just quite regular, the girl next door who worked on a television station in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the wife next door in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Gifted, witty, troubled, the extraordinary mother in “Ordinary People” and a part of our family, too.
Fats Domino and Chuck Berry — Two African American singers and musicians who bridged the gap between black music of the 1940s and 1950s — the blues, jazz — and the newborn era of rock and roll.
David Cassidy — For a brief time, the teen idol and part of an all-American family.
Charles Manson — The kind of American family that horrified all of American families — a murderous cult headed by Manson himself.
Della Reese — “Don’t You Know?” and many other great ’50s pop and jazz songs made her reputation as an American classic, along with a stint as an angel on television.
Wayne Cochran — “The White Knight of Soul Singers,” with a pompadour to match, a rocker if there ever was one.
Jerry Lewis — The French thought of him as a genius-level comic, and considered his films classics of the cinema. He was manic, both as a partner with Dean Martin and loudly, maddingly, by himself.
John Ashbery — Poetry as clean as a first thought, words that made you want to go back, usually to the New Yorker.
Lillian Ross — How to write a profile, also in the New Yorker.
J. P. Donleavy — He wrote a famous nasty book, “The Ginger Man,” then rose to a level of lyricism and humor that, if that was to your taste, you cherished forever.
Hugh Hefner — The Playboy of the Western World is now central to the #metoo discussion. His prominence and effect on how men felt about women — by way of centerfolds and the suave male life — is full of discomfort and awkwardness for the survivors.
Roger Moore — He was the stylish, graceful, sophisticated, even silly Bond, but Bond nevertheless.
Dick Gregory — The powerful voice of civil rights and its accomplishments, as well as a very funny man in a previous incarnation.
Tom Petty — His death, only days after a concert, reminded us of just how uniquely gifted a rocker he was, especially with compatriots Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. He broke our hearts.
Keely Smith — A golden voiced singer from the 1940s, she paired up with husband Louis Prima and his band and had haunting versions of such hits as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “I Wish You Love.”
Tobe Hooper, George Romano, and Martin Landau — Hooper gave us chills and lots of blood in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” Romano invented zombies in “Night of the Living Dead” and Landau, a fine actor, played the man who played Dracula in “Ed Wood” and played the count himself in a road production.
Adam West — Batman before there was the Dark Knight in the movies. Pow!
Sam Shepard — American playwright extraordinaire.