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BY SCOTT SITFFLER | When a theater critic passes away, those in his workplace orbit don’t normally rush to pen glowing testimonials. Most of them simply aren’t moved to do so, while the rest are too busy jockeying for position on the graveyard backhoe.
The reaction to Jerry Tallmer’s death was, like his work, beyond the scope of standard protocol.
New York City native, Dartmouth graduate, World War II veteran and influential arts writer Tallmer was just weeks shy of his 94th birthday when he died on November 9, taking with him an unyielding drive — and an exceedingly rare ability — to communicate the essence of an author’s message, an actor’s method, or a person’s life.
While lesser human beings (and therefore, lesser writers) are miserly with generating content that doesn’t bolster their opinion or assert their authority, the arts and entertainment features Tallmer wrote for this publication regularly surrendered long stretches of his available word count to excerpts from the script. This was done in the service of calling attention not only to the playwright’s craftsmanship, but also to the heart and soul of the work. Combine that with Tallmer’s ability to place contemporary productions within the context of versions seen decades ago, and the scope of his loss begins to take shape.
Not exactly given to hyperbole or fits of unearned praise, show business historian (and Downtown Express’ theater columnist) Trav S.D. recalls that upon meeting Tallmer a decade ago, “He gave me a look, the sort of expression only a New Yorker could love, not of bewilderment, but of fatigue, a look that said, ‘What’s that? Some kind of a joke name? I got no time or energy or patience for even trying to understand what you’re telling me.’ But I sure knew who he was. Small in physical stature, he was a giant (or ought to have been) in Off-Broadway. After all, he was the man who named it. He was the guy who reviewed all of those legendary experimental productions for The Village Voice in the late fifties and early sixties, and founded the Obie Awards. … In essence, he was midwife to the very culture that inspired me to adapt a pseudonym in the first place. Theater in the sixties operated according to the premise that this is a world of infinite possibility. We need the likes of Jerry Tallmer right now more than ever.”
The ripple effects will never abate from that decisive moment when Tallmer long ago committed to frequent ventures below 14th St., in the interest of spotlighting a new form of theater. His method of covering Downtown paralleled that loosely defined world of shoestring budgets and a black box sets, resulting in an equally unique and personal style of criticism. Those familiar with his many years of feature/review hybrid work for this newspaper will recall, hopefully with fondness, how Tallmer frequently went off-topic. Childhood memories and pop culture references from the first half of the 20th century were momentary diversions, though, and lovingly (if not always firmly) anchored to the matter at hand.
Readers only saw in passing the physical effort it took to cover a story. Half of any job, after all, is showing up — and Tallmer, at every stage of his life, did it with gusto.
Actor and theatrical press agent Jonathan Slaff recalls a lasting impression, while Tallmer was working for the New York Post: “I was amazed at how many small theaters he would cover for a big paper. Like the time in the very early 1990s when he came to review a version of ‘Hamlet’ set in 1930s Bulgaria at the House of Candles Theater on Stanton St. It was maybe the second show after that new space opened. There was torrential rain that night. Transit was broken and cabs were scarce. He was already elderly and seemed frail. I wondered how he would get to the theater. He did. He came splashing to the theater on time…. He began his review, ‘This swimmer…’ He came to the work of new artists with an eye for discovery. He was not only a discerning critic, he was also a great reporter. That was the difference between him and many other people who write about the arts.”
Rolling Stone co-founder Michael Lydon, a musician on the current Village performance scene, only knew Tallmer through his work. As a writer who recently handed in, early, an assignment to this publication’s arts section, Lydon had no reason to reach out to us other than to note, “I always felt he was on the artist’s side. He knew and sympathized with the struggles to do original work, meaningful work, and also, the struggles to get gigs, recognition, bodies in seats. New York is a tough town. Jerry Tallmer understood the whole battle and did his best to cheer us on.”
When I became arts editor of Downtown Express several years ago, Jerry left the polite greetings in the dust and got down to the real work of forcefully advocating for his favorite artists and producing entities (he was a soft touch, rightfully so, for anything from the Mint Theater Company). We often clashed on what to cover — but agreed that bad reviews, even at two words (“Don’t go!”) were not the best use of finite newsprint space. So began the process of having messengers deliver scripts to Jerry’s apartment, where he’d put aside the best and consign the also-rans to his dustbin. When it came time to whittle that list down even further, he never played the Obie card or reminded me of the fact that his legacy as a writer and editor predated my birth. He didn’t have to. Jerry got the gig like he covered the show: on merit.