Charles Pierce Memorial Service, June 19, 1999
by Peter Mintun
Peter Mintun is a pianist, singer and friend of Charles Pierce. He divides his time between his home in San Francisco and Bemelmans Bar in New York's Carlyle Hotel.
I didnt know quite what to expect when I boarded the plane in San Francisco for Charles Pierces memorial gathering at Hollywoods Forest Lawn Memorial Park on June 19, 1999.
Fortunately, I arrived at Burbank Airport in time to leisurely rent a car that enabled me to drive to the service, not far away. When I arrived at the Church of the Hills at Forest Lawn, another service was just leaving the chapel. Not Charles kind of crowd, I could tell, because their idea of mourning attire meant a black T-shirt.
It was noon, and the Pierce service was to begin at 1:00. Soon the chapel emptied, but we were kept "at bay" until everything could be removed from the earlier service. The weather was hot and sunny, with the usual smoggy L.A. sky. A contingent of locals, San Franciscans and ex-San Franciscans was waiting to enter the chapel. Hugs were abundant for Joan Edgar, Charles accompanist for seven years, who flew down from Oakland. I had conversations with Franklin Townsend, well-known Fairmont Hotel hairdresser who pampered Charles wigs. Another who flew down from SF was journalist/publicist Ken Maley, who told me that as a teenager, his life was changed by seeing Charles Pierce's show at the Gilded Cage in San Francisco. Other San Franciscans included Charles Black, Jr., and travel agent Sumner Winship, who had been friends with Charles for about forty years. SF transplants included actress/singer Sharon McNight, who was recalling a few of Charles memorable lines. Charles had many friends from the early cast of the long-running show Beach Blanket Babylon, including his former dresser Kirk Frederick, Shelley Werk, Jim Reiter and Michael Cameron Benbrook (most recently seen playing the lead in Christmas With The Crawfords). Enamored fans mingled with Charles' Hollywood friends: singer-actress Carole Cook, comedienne Alice Ghostley, actress Beatrice Arthur, night club veteran Michael Greer, actor Bill Erwin and TV star Rip Taylor.
Having attended (and participated in) more than my share of memorials and funerals, I presumed this service would be an overview of Charles life and career, with important friends recalling lines from his shows, words of praise from his critics, and possibly recordings of Charles own voice impersonating Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. What happened next failed, happily, to match my expectations. This service was written, directed and produced by the deceased, himself. Yet, it was not a knee-slapping series of recollections and career accomplishments. Charles chose traditional tunes for his harpist (Lori Andrews) to play before, during and after the service. We heard such tunes as "Shall We Gather at the River," "Smilin Through," "Look For The Silver Lining," and "Ill See You Again" as the guests entered the packed chapel, which held about 250 seated. Another 250 stood along the aisles or outside, where they heard the service through speakers.
Actor Michael Kearns made the first remarks when he welcomed the congregation to "...what will be the final Charles Pierce Show," a line which elicited a hesitant applause. He immediately broke the ice by adding, "You can applaud," which brought a heartfelt, loving ovation of cheers, whistles and applause that seemed to last for minutes. Kearns explained to us that Mr. Pierce wanted this service to be a show, written by, directed by and produced by Charles Pierce." (More applause.) It then occurred to me that Charles always had terrific control over his shows. He did almost everything himself, had a minimal crew, and exercised a kind of paternal/maternal control over his obeying audiences. I remembered an old line of his: "Some of you may not know all these names I am using tonight...TOUGH!" Then of course, there was the bit (as Bette Davis in her Margo Channing gown), when Pierce bent down and sweetly asked an audience member for a cigarette. As he was handed one, he threw it to the stage floor and yelled "Lit!" We were not to hear once during the service, the names Davis, Crawford, Channing, Bankhead, Swanson or even Eleanor Roosevelt. The essence of this service was an appreciation, not of Charles but by Charles.
Kearns explained that Charles, on his deathbed, gave instructions as to who would speak at his service, and what, precisely, they would say. His bed was strewn with sheet music to the songs had wanted the harpist to play. Kearns also paid tribute to the man who stayed by Charles side 24-hours a day during the last months of his life, Don Lee Kobus. The first speaker chosen by Pierce was actor Conrad Bain, who played Dr. Harmon on the sitcom Maude, and was the star of Diffrent Strokes. Bain read one of the many letters Charles saved from his fans. The following poem, by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1886), was sent by a fan.
To laugh often, and much
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the appreciation of honest critics,
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others,
To leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden path,
or a redeemed social condition
To know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived,
This is success.
Bain explained further that the person that sent this poem to Charles was David Lane, the spotlight man from one of Charles club dates. Lane also added, "I believe this best fits how I feel about you: You share beautifully. Thanks, David Lane."
David Lane was a spotlight man for one of Charles' shows many years ago. Charles did not recall ever seeing the man. Kearns continued, "Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was not a spotlight man for Charles, but her prose caught his eye and he wanted it to be spotlighted here:" [Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D., is the psychiatrist/author who is credited with bringing the hospice movement to the United States.]
When we have done all the work we were sent to Earth to do
We are allowed to shed our body, which imprisons our soul like a cocoon
encloses the future butterfly.
And when the time is right, we can let go of it and we will be of pain, free of
fears and worries -- free as a beautiful butterfly, returning home to God.
Mr. Bain then introduced friend Allan Byrns. who recited a sonnet by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). It was included in a book-reading show Pierce had done many years before his comedy shows. To the accompaniment of Lori Andrews harp, Byrns read:
And you as well must die, beloved dust
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel before the gust of Death,
or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell, -- this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how beloved above all else that dies.
Byrns then introduced old friend/singer Jackie Altier, who flew in from Washington state, sang a crystal clear, heartfelt "Smilin Through," written by Arthur A. Penn in 1919. The song made it clear to me that Charles Pierce, for all his clever and often caustic wit, and his razor-sharp remarks, had an enormously sentimental sense of his family and home. Later in the service we would learn of his devotion to his mother and aunt, and how their deaths would affect the direction of his adult life. Charles asked this to be read as an introduction: "Scarlett O'Hara always returned to her beloved Tara when the going got rough. Charles always went back to his home town, Watertown, New York. There, he would always find Jessie, his mother waiting for him with her blue eyes and a smile."
Theres a little brown road windin over the hill
To a little white cot by the sea;
Theres a little green gate
At whose trellis I wait
While two eyes o blue
Come smilin through
Theres a little gray lock or two in the brown of the hair
Theres some silver in mine, too, I see
But in all the long years
When the clouds brought their tears
Those two eyes o blue
Kept smilin through
A bit of brevity was shown by the next speaker, actor Elliot "Ted" Reid (a regular on the tv news satire That Was The Week That Was), who remarked, "Look at this packed house...if Charles could only see this! Imagine what hed get -- for just the cover charge!"
Reid reconfirmed that Charles was the Great Organizer, and that it is not surprising how carefully he gave instructions. Charles specified that "...there is to be no extraneous rambling-on of speakers." Reid agreed to obey his director, as he always tried to do. Reid read the words of Pierce himself.
"As I reflect back on my life and my life style I realize what a joyous and happy time most of it was. There was my work, which was really play, I had my mother, aunt, father, other relatives, and friends who were like family. I was always 'on the move.'
"My life was enhanced by a fair amount of good health and a loving family. Jessie, my mother, was the one person I wanted to be with. Also my Aunt Carolyn was a terribly important person in my life. My father, at times distant, was still a wonderfully understanding man, and I know he loved me. He passed away from asthma in 1973.
"During the nightclub years, I would finish an engagement, return to my apartment, get things in order and then fly off to Watertown, New York, to be with Mother and Dad. I must have made the trip from the Syracuse airport by car, three hundred times! Watertown was always beckoning. When Dad died, and Mother was alone, I made the trip more often.
"Then, like a ballet dancer, I knew my time was up and I should leave the clubs. Mother had died the year before, and I had not fully recovered from her death. I retired the 'act' in October of 1990. Mother died in 1989 and Aunt Carolyn in 1995. She was my support after Mother passed away. Since Mothers death, and my departure from the world of night clubs, life has been totally different.
"I had a few good retirement years after 1990, with trips to Europe and elsewhere. When Aunt Carolyn took ill in January of 1995, I made trips to Watertown to see about her upkeep. She had nurses and care-givers round the clock til July, when she too, left my life. I was left her Victorian-style house and a substantial amount of money. Sadly, I had to sell the house, as I could not live there alone. I left the house for the last time in the fall of 1995, and a dear friend Charlie Bill Dunham took over the sale of the contents of the house. Charlie himself died a few years ago. I have a list of over one hundred friends who have died: All missed so much.
"Now, as they say, its your turn. In February of 1997 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Those of you who know, know that I love a Vodka Martini. Perhaps they did me in...while I was doing them. It is not true I am to be cremated and my ashes, with some glitter dust, be put in an empty Smirnoff bottle and tossed off the Golden Gate Bridge. [laughter] What an exit. Perhaps too -- splashy? [loving groans from congregation.]
"I have had my share of good times, and certainly more laughs than are allowed. Some may not think this was right, but it was right for me. So, to my endearing and enduring friends and relatives, as eternity beckons, I leave you all with these thoughts:
Laugh, my friends, and laugh my foes
Mirth lightly comes and lightly goes
And learns ere life runs blithely past
He longest laughs who laughs the last
"From my childhood. And again, from Miss Millay:
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light.
[from A Few Figs From Thistles, 1920]
"Exit Charles, with an old Irish lesson:
May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand."
[End of Pierces own remarks]
Michael Kearns then announced that there was one more poem Charles instructed him to read. It went like this:
A man may kiss a maid good-bye
The sun may kiss the butterfly
The morning dew may kiss the grass
And you, my friends [pause],
Bea Arthur, one of Charles dearest "bosom buddies," was asked by Pierce to sing a song at the end of the service. Trying to control the tears, she first shared Charles favorite story with the congregation, who clung onto every word, knowing it was Charless last punch line.
"A Mother's Intuition"
John invited his mother over for dinner. During the meal his mother couldnt help noticing how handsome Johns roommate was. [laughter] She had long been suspicious of Johns sexuality and this only made her more curious. Over the course of the evening, while watching the two men interact, she started to wonder if there was more to John and his roommate than met the eye. Reading his moms thoughts, John volunteered, "I know what you must be thinking, but I assure you that Mike and I are just roommates."
About a week later, Mike came to John and said, "You know, ever since your mother came to dinner, I have been unable to find that beautiful, silver gravy ladle. You dont suppose she took it, do you?"
John said, "Well, I doubt it, but Ill write her a letter just to be sure." So he sat down and wrote "Dear Mother, Im not saying you 'did' take the gravy ladle from my house and Im not saying you 'did not' take a gravy ladle, but the fact remains that one has been missing ever since you were here for dinner. Love, John."
Several days later John received a letter from his mother which read "Dear Son, Im not saying you 'do' sleep with Mike, and I am not saying you 'do not' sleep with Mike, but the fact remains that if he was sleeping in his own bed, he would have found the gravy ladle by now. Love, Mom."
Miss Arthur then wiped some tears, collected her thoughts and ended the service by singing a song written by Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973), accompanied by harp.
Ill see you again whenever spring breaks through again
Time may lie heavy between
But what has been is past forgetting
This sweet memory across the years will come to me
Though my world may go awry
In my heart will ever lie
Just the echo of a sigh
As the harpist played Jerome Kern and B.G. DeSylva's "Look For the Silver Lining," the mourners walked towards the altar and paid respects to a large color photo of Pierce in an idyllic woodland setting. Mourners took long-stemmed yellow roses from a basket placed by the altar. The congregants then drove a few hundred yards up the Forest Lawn hill to the Columbarium of Providence, where an urn containing Charles' ashes was placed in front of a dignified, formal Pierce memorial niche, just around the corner from the niche of Lucille Ball (the plaque says Lucille Morton, her married name), Liberace, and the imposing tomb of Bette Davis. As mourners paid their last respects to Pierce, many placed their yellow roses atop his resting place. Others walked around the corner and placed their roses on the tomb of Bette Davis.
Charles Pierce Memorial
Forest Lawn Memorial Park
See program from memorial service
See photos of the post-memorial gathering
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