Farewell Gary Fitzgerald

At first I didn’t even know his name. I would see him in the lobby of the Fine Arts Center before shows, art openings, receptions, and before long we would be standing next to each other, talking.I grew up watching Jack Parr and Steven Allen, hosts and conversationalists on the old “Tonight Show.” Standing next to Gary Fitzgerald, I felt as mesmerized as Jack Parr must have felt, his chin cupped in both hands, elbows on the desk, smile planted on his face, as he listened to Oscar Levant or Alexander King recount their latest tales.

Gary, too, was the main event, always saying something interesting and engaging, stringing together a series of mellifluous words, a flurry of utterances cloaked in fine satins and whole cloth, colors both subtle and bold, which took on even more luster in the glimmering light.

Gary was an old school conversationalist: loquacious, subtle, blunt, humorous–all topped off with a great laugh. I never recall a time over the years when he appeared down, unenthusiastic, not full of energy and opinions. Oh, of course, there certainly must have been those moments–he was a card carrying member of the human race, after all–but the face he displayed in public glowed with enthusiasm, thoughts spilling out, gathering momentum, trolley cars of polysyllabic words traveling lickety-split along the silvery rails.

Though I never could imagine what might tumble out next in his free fall of information, there seemed to be a continuity from one conversation to the next, no matter how much time had passed in between.

Years ago, I had seen Peter Ustinov striding along Fifth Avenue, holding in his outstretched arms, a tall pile of manuscript. In the wintry breeze, paper was spilling this way and that from the stack, winding up underfoot, no matter how hard pedestrians tried to dance out of the way, nor how diligently his staff scurried to pick up the pages, dipping like birds pecking seeds from the ground, as soon as they were cast down from the sower’s hand.

Gary Fitzgerald’s observations seemed like that. His ideas peeled off like Peter Ustinoff’s pages, not to mention a passing resemblance to Mr. Ustinoff, both eccentric in the best sense of that word: bohemian, fresh idiosyncratic, nonconformist, offbeat, original, special, unconventional, unorthodox, unique.

All words I can imagine filing out of Gary’s mouth in the same conversation.

The last time I saw Gary was on his Monday night. We sat next to each other in Jefford’s Auditorium at the screening of a new student movie. Gary was a great supporter of students’ creative efforts, and as always, it was captivating to hear his comments before, during, and after the film, for Gary was never shy to share. The man was generous with himself.

And then the news from two days later of Gary’s downfall, beginning at the hands of a snow blower.

“Do snow blowers have hands?” Gary might have started in.

With his crinkling face and sparkling eyes, his grimacing smile through a nobody-can-pull-it-off-like-that-anymore kind of beard, the listener is alerted that this is going to be good, really good, even if it is the story of his own demise.

Gary, as always, we would have been in for a real treat.

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