“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
– Deathbed quote, famed character actor Edmund Gwenn
The world is a little less jovial than it was a few days ago. I learned today of the Saturday passing of an old high school friend, Dave McGrew. As so much does these days, the news reached me stealthily via a Facebook messagefrom a woman I never had the pleasure of meeting, his new wife.
Dave and I shared a rather off-kilter sense of humor and a love for old comedians: The Marx Brothers (both of us) and W.C. Fields (mostly Dave). We also shared an affinity for the more contemporary antics of Johnny Carson, Johnathan Winters, Henny Youngman and Don Rickles.
What can I say? It was the 70’s and we had a good ear for things funny.
I came to know Dave because of his friendship with another Denver South friend, Randy Hill. While I knew them both for a while, we really didn’t our stride as friends until midway through our junior year, when we found ourselves in the same afternoon drama class, headed by the illustrious J. Joe Craft. Randy, Dave and I were enthusiastic in our theatrical endeavors, though our depth and range as thespians was not extensive. J. Joe appreciated our efforts, though the finished products were probably more than a little uneven.
Still, in a drama class producing one-act plays our little cadre stood out due to the sheer volume of productions we performed. In one semester we pulled off three one-acts, dave mostly a behind-the-scenes guy. Most of the other groups spent their semester honing a singular production. With the added participation of one of my locker partner and good friend Kirke Fox, plus whoever else we could drag in for a given show, we had quite the gallant little troupe.
Room 204, our drama classroom, had a small rehearsal stage, and we gave it quite a workout. For both Randy and Dave, it was their first time performing. We had a blast.
It didn’t hurt that we would spend a lot of lunch hours and much after school time honing our comedic timing with/on one another – Dave and I alternately utilizing Randy as the straight man/verbal punching bag. It was never a competition, though Dave had impeccable timing and recall of Youngman one-liners, while I excelled at the Rickelesque insult shot. We each had a good ear for voices and were reasonably proficient at impersonations, although we never had the confidence to ‘go live’ in a public setting with that. Ironically, we never did a stand-up routine together on a true stage, though we both did comedy bits in a talent show our senior year; Dave and Randy did a bit, and I teamed with pal Rick Hunter for an esoteric set didn’t get near the laughs of Dave and Randy.
As our senior year approached, we learned that our beloved Mr. Craft was going to be leaving us to take on teaching duties at Denver’s brand-spanking-new Career Education Center – a facility that was geared for students who wanted to learn everything from drama and dance to auto mechanics and retail business. It was a huge facility with performance areas, a store, restaurant, auto shop – all staffed by students in a true learning environment.
Somehow, perhaps through pity if nothing else, Dave, Randy and I all applied and were accepted into J. Joe’s inaugural class at the CEC: Children’s Theatre. The idea was to create and perform small-scale productions (much like the one-acts we had done at South) that we could take on the road to various elementary schools. Now there is childish, and childlike – we were more the latter, but could devolve into the former, so performing for children was a double-edged sword – a tough crowd, and we had to know our limits. The CEC experience was fantastic; along with students from three other area schools, ten of us wrote, produced and executed an eclectic mix of traveling shows including Little Red Riding Hood and the Tropical Talk Show, a parody featuring Dave as a pseudo-Johnny Carson, me as Alley Oop the caveman, the evening’s featured guest.
Even our bus rides to-and-from South and the CEC were a hoot, as we were joined by Kip Craft (J. Joe’s son, a good friend, who was in the CEC dance program) and another good friend and locker partner of mine, Johnny Wilkins one of our BMOC’s, who was training to be a paramedic. Johnny and Kip laughed easily, making for a great, easy to please and captive audience.
But our crowning children’s theatre triumph was in the spring; we appeared in a production called The Wise Men of Chelm, from the stories of Sholem Aleichem – tales from the same group of stories which formed the basis of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ What made the show so special was not just the material, but the venue – the main stage of the Schwayder Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. It was big time, and thanks to J. Joe we managed to pull it off.
Dave told me many years later that it was his one and only appearance on a main stage, and he loved every minute of it. I never really realized until tonight what a privilege it was for me to share in something like that. In the nearly forty years since, I have done a lot of theatre, spent twelve years in radio, and appeared in all sorts of stuff and a lot of unique places, but that Schwayder Theatre experience was, indeed, something special, for a lot of reasons. It is even more of a singular experience now: not only is Dave gone, but so is Randy. He died about ten years ago. Kip, he of the bus-backseat audience was our technical director for the Wise Men of Chelm, died tragically just a few years after graduating from high school. Same for Johnny; member of our practice audience, tireless encourager and real audience member when it counted.
I can’t help but think that all four of them are somewhere, riding on a rickety old school bus somewhere – the other three laughing their fool heads off at something Dave has said. Probably at my expense.
The last twenty years or so were not easy for Dave; a bad motorcycle accident cost him big chunks of his life due to a severe head injury, among others. I only found out about the accident because he contacted me out of the blue after finding me on a genealogy bulletin board somewhere. He would pop in and out of my life via email (and later, Facebook) sometimes going two years between contacts. The first few times, he was plying me for information, trying to recover bits and pieces. His messages were at times rambling, and filled with medical minutiae. Then, as time went on, more of the old Dave emerged: emailed jokes, reminiscences, comments on current affairs. Sometimes he had been looking through old yearbooks, and he would ask me about certain people and events. Sometimes, quite tentatively.
In later years, the emails were few and far between, but more of the ‘before’ Dave (his words) would shine through. Even the chronic pain and other issues provided fodder for humor. I only wish there had been more emails, more Facebook posts. But, unlike one-act plays in drama class, sometimes there is something to be said for quality over quantity. Good friendships are like that.
David, my friend, may you rest in peace. I have no doubt that you brought joy and happiness into a lot of lives through the years, whether you ever stepped on another stage or not. Thanks for being there, and letting me be there with you – bad Yiddish dialects, obnoxious kids, groan-inducing punchlines and all. You done good, kid. Rest well.
I know as I type this there is only one thing Dave could or would possibly say to me in response to this salute, and in his best W.C. Fields voice, I can hear him just as plain as day:
“Well, Mark, on the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
And the rest of the guys are cackling madly, as the bus drives slowly away.