One of my keenest pleasures during decades as a theatre reviewer has been to switch sides and do shows myself. This vice-versa dexterity is but one delight I shared with my beloved friend George Weinberg-Harter (1944-2016).
When I met George in 1980, he was one of the founders of the San Diego Gilbert and Sullivan Society and he had laboriously trained himself to perform the most demanding roles in the G&S operas, the lead comedian. The guy who capers and poses while singing all those odd songs, like “The Very Model of a Modern Major General” and “Tit Willow.”
George wasn’t the stuff of legends, like George Grossmith and Martyn Green in the lofty, so-English original G&S stagings preserved for a century by the D’Oyly Carte Opera. His mild baritone was no more than adequate and his dancing skills were, to be generous, marginal. But, as I soon found when I had the inspiring opportunity to direct him in three or four of the G&S works, nobody worked harder or took the plays more seriously. Nobody.
When, as I was moving to sandiego.com after my retirement from the Union-Tribune, George came to me to inquire about the possibility of writing some theatre reviews, I didn’t pause a beat. Of course he would be welcome. When could he start?
By then, we had worked on several plays together. I knew that any theatrical project I could imagine working on, from whichever side of the proscenium arch, would be improved by George’s presence. And, indeed, he applied himself to reviewing with his usual meticulous erudition and became, almost immediately, one of the best reviewers in town.
His career as a critic came to an untimely end when he withdrew, pleading overwork and underpay. George was incapable of being satisfied with second-rate results when he knew he could do better by working harder. Rather than run the risk, he moved on.
I didn’t know much about George’s personal life. We always had too much to discuss and delight over besides everyday details. I am privileged to know his lovely and enchanting wife Susan and I cherish the time I have spent in the cheerful comfort of their home. I know that he was born and raised in Allied Gardens and that he graduated from San Diego State along with several other theatrical stalwarts.
But I never had occasion to question him about his career with San Diego County as a “minor bureaucrat” (his words) when he might have enriched a faculty or a publishing house somewhere. I’m sure he would have responded to my content, as we both tended to do when examining a subject together, but there just always were more fascinating paths to follow.
In addition to playing the comedian roles for the SDG&S company, George also did the posters, and each was a work of art. During the decade when he was a company stalwart, he created over 50 of these posters and, though he was typically bland in discussing them, he was fiercely proud of them. More recently, he found that he had a knack for larger work and he created a couple of stage drops that were exemplary. Perhaps somebody will mount a show some day of his theatre art.
But he wasn’t interested in management. When I asked him to help me edit Shakespeare’s obscure “Troilus and Cressida” (and play both Agamemnon and Pandarus!), he was game and plunged immediately into the complexities of balancing scholarship and stage needs. But he begged off when I asked him to help with the casting. He pleaded a total inability to face an actor who wouldn’t get the part.
As far as I could tell, George was a splendid influence in a dressing room. His combination of discipline and drollery set a tone that influenced positively his colleagues at every level of experience. He was rightfully proud of his reputation and of the endless flow of roles offered him without the need of auditions.
Often, when someone dies unexpectedly, I lament the times when I should have kept in touch, when I should have appreciated what I got from a friendship rather than letting it lag. I find, gratefully, that I have few such feelings about George Weinberg-Harter, even though I will miss him from now on. Instead, I feel that we spent well our time together and shared our mutual delight right to the limit.
I avoid absolutes and rarely use such words as “unique.” But this is one of the times when I have no hesitation: My friend George was unique. When comes such another?