Green Acres

January 30th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out for other great local bloggers.)

It might have been a warm spring night, the sort of night where the moon seems to glow and promise drips from every budding tree. It was a party, a community dance, maybe, on the second floor, perhaps, of a grand old hotel in a small town in the center of  Massachusetts. It might have been in 1965-era Technicolor, the colors garish and brilliant, like new toys.

Who knows what the occasion was – veteran’s benefit, May Day, a municipal election. But there he was at the piano: play a song, toss off a witty remark, play another song. He loved being the center of attention – the town librarian, Tony Randall on the set of Green Acres, married to the sharp-tongued, take-no-prisoners town clerk; Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, opening about as far off Broadway as you can get.

I was not at this party – it was long before I met Jim Sullivan. But I can see it – just like all the folks at his funeral could see it, vividly, knowing Jim and his love of the stage. He was an artist, an actor, a raging egotist, a generous mentor, and one of the most maddening men I’ve ever met. And he was my father-in-law, until the middle of October, when one morning he wasn’t feeling too well, and the next evening he was dead.

In many ways, life and the limelight were not particularly kind to Jim Sullivan. He aspired to be a great poet – he even nominated himself (there’s that ego, there) for the Pulitzer Prize – but recognition studiously escaped him. His wife died far too young. Parkinson’s eventually robbed him of his hands, and his ability to drive, and thus his spotlight. But in many other ways, he was as successful as any of us could ever dream. The town of Barre was his canvas – everybody, but everybody, knew him; he was omnipresent in town government, veteran’s affairs, social and intellectual life. He wrote a poem for the Barre Gazette every single week, just about, for thirty years or so – the last one appeared the day after he died. Life gave him a small pond, and he was as big a fish as they’d ever have.

Artists beget artists. His son is a newspaperman and a novelist; his daughter is a writer. His daughter hates the limelight, she says – yes, she bristled at her father’s egotism, and doesn’t want to be like that, but man, I’ve seen her work a room. It’s in her blood – she can’t fight it. And I – well, it seems that there’s this gesture that Jim made with his finger when he was holding forth that I can reproduce, almost eerily, as if I inherited it from him. He was a ham; I’m a ham.

Live performance is an ephemeral thing. Most performances aren’t recorded, in any way, except in our memories. They happen, and they’re gone. But the impact they have on people can last for decades. They’re fragile, weightless, but yet, at times, as substantial for the witnesses (and participants) as a rock.

My wife misses her father terribly, in good ways and in bad. In his illness, he was the center of her attention for almost a year. But the town of Barre has the luxury of missing him in those ways that recall the beauty and the impact of that night on the second floor of the grand hotel. Each of us, as an artist, has a chance to have that sort of effect on an audience; and each of you, the audience, has a chance at that memory, if you put down your book, put on your coat, and join the party.

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