“O Romeo, Romeo, brave Mercutio’s dead!
That gallant spirit hath aspired the clouds,
Which too untimely here did scorn the earth.”
Romeo & Juliet, III.1
In my mind, although he made an indelible impression on many roles throughout his career as an actor (‘Bottom’; ‘Macbeth’; ‘Sir Toby Belch’; ‘MacHeath’; and ‘Claudius’ for SIR alone), Gene Pyrz was Mercutio. A gallant spirit. A dare-devil. An adventurer. A rock star.
He was charismatic, pugnacious, gentle, athletic, and exceptionally literate. He reveled in camaraderie, yet remained magnetically aloof and steadfastly private. He loved being at the centre of attention, and he achieved it so effortlessly as to create the illusion that it had been thrust upon him – that he remained there merely out of the grace and good nature of his heart. He could be an amazing friend, unobtrusively dispensing advice through metaphor, from a wealth of hard-won wisdom and experience.
(At the time when he and I were closest, Gene himself accepted advice from only three sources: William Shakespeare; ‘Country’ Dick Montana; and his ‘yogi’, Paul Scarnati. In his later years, he was incredibly lucky to come home to the amazing Ruth Louise Huff, and I can only hope and imagine that he had the good sense to follow her patient, unwavering guidance.)
To my detriment, I failed to take advantage of the opportunity to watch Gene perform in the early years of SIR (although I watched him in many shows besides), so I will leave it to others more qualified to describe his contribution as a founding member. Instead, I’d like to share a handful of my own personal memories of Gene and what he meant to me.
I first met Gene when we were cast together in the (short-lived) Manitoba Theatre Centre Acting Company’s production of Romeo & Juliet – my very first professional acting job. The cast was stacked with a majority of Winnipeg’s finest actors (Sharon Bajer, Ross McMillan, Megan McArton, Nancy Drake, Richard Hurst, Robb Patterson, Frank Adamson, Arne MacPherson) and, for me, at the top of proverbial Xmas tree stood Gene as, of course, Mercutio. Watching him and (briefly) sharing a stage with him was a lesson in commitment to the moment. In true Mercutian fashion, Gene was utterly unpredictable, fearless, occasionally reckless, and electric. When he was on the stage, he owned it.
But it was off the stage, in the green room, where I really managed to connect with him, and it was no accident. First, to offer an idea of the level of celebrity Gene held in my mind (and in the minds of many) – an anecdote. I was walking down Main St. on my way to rehearsal, and happened to pass by the window of what was then the office of Uptown magazine. Within sat a childhood friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, and noticing my wave as I went past, she motioned for me to wait and came out on to the street. She had seen in a media release that I was about to make my professional debut and, as I imagined, was going to propose doing a feature on me as an up and coming artist. After a barely respectable minimum of small talk and congratulations, she got to the point: they were preparing their Fall Arts Season issue, and could I please pass along a message to Gene Pyrz that they were hoping to feature his face on the cover and would like to arrange a photo shoot.
Rather than feeling jealous or insulted, I was delighted to have a legitimate excuse to approach Gene, and thought this would be the ice-breaker to a lasting friendship. It wasn’t. However, a few weeks later, I discovered my way in. Sitting around the green room, Gene and a few other cast members were discussing movies, and the subject of Dr. Strangelove came up. By coincidence, I had just finished renting and watching it the night before, and I pounced on the opportunity to share the vast and intimate knowledge of the film I had acquired from this single viewing. Gene (as I learned) was always excited to be talking about the things he was excited about, and over the course of the show’s run, I committed to memory several scenes from the movie which Gene and I would then act out, to our endless amusement. One day I brought in an anthology of famous movie scenes and monologues that I’d bought for university – among them were 3 scenes from Strangelove – and gave it to Gene. He was far more thrilled than he probably should have been and, after a moment of leafing through the book, he found the page he wanted and handed it over to an unsuspecting Richard Hurst, cajoling him into reading President Merkin’s one-sided conversation with the Russian leader Dmitry. Cackling with delight when Richard finished, Gene climbed up on to the green room table and crawling towards Richard quoted “I know how it is baby. Tell you what you do: you just start your countdown and old Bucky’ll be back here before you can say ‘blast off”!”
Weeks after the show had closed, I attended a fundraiser celebrating Richard’s 50th birthday and, standing in line in the bathroom I overheard Gene talking to James Durham, whom I hadn’t met at the time, about a show they’d worked on together and the fun he’d had doing “Strangelove” lines with James. He said “When we were doing R & J there was this guy, Kevin Klassen, I don’t know if you know him but he knows it pretty well too and… I kind of miss him, you know?”. My heart melted. I slipped past them out of the bathroom and never said a word about it to anyone until now.
Less than a year later I moved to Vancouver, and when I came back I’d fallen out of touch with Gene, bumping into him occasionally, until we were both asked to be in Hamlet - my very first show with Shakespeare in the Ruins. It was a very troubled time in my life, and Gene seemed a little out of sorts as well, and we somehow managed to bond over our mutual commiseration without ever actually describing to one another what it was we were dealing with. We had a great time working on the show together, but we each sensed the other had a struggle going on inside of them, and simply acknowledged it without saying much. Each night, when Gene (as Claudius) took me (as Laertes) literally down the garden path to account for Polonius’s death, he would offer me a little wooden goblet with just a single swallow of beer (“Don’t drink it if you don’t want it”) and we would briefly check in each other’s situation. We remained close friends over the next couple of years, drinking together occasionally during the Fringe Festival, hooking up whenever his band played in town, and especially while he was performing his Hank Williams show at the Royal George in Transcona. One night at Mona Lisa’s, after spending his entire break between sets listening to me and my problems, he dedicated Nick Lowe’s “My Heart Hurts” to me. At the end of the night I helped him load out and drove all over town with him dropping off the band’s equipment.
Once, when I was living by myself in Osborne Village, I walked into the Shopper’s Drug Mart to buy cigarettes and there was Gene, having come for the same reason but a few bucks short of a pack. I insisted on buying, and he, in a simple but (to me) enormously symbolic gesture of appreciation that was typical of Gene, insisted that I accept an American silver dollar that he had been carrying with him for luck. I still have it. Another item I still have is a compilation of Country Dick Montana and the Beat Farmers tunes that Gene and Paul put together for me, which they thought would help see me through the rough times. It is dedicated with the following quote from Country Dick: “Never be clear about anything except your genius and your worship-ability.”
Later, in a happier time, when my (now) wife and I were putting together a fundraiser at the Windsor Hotel for a show we were producing and were left at the last minute without a band, Gene agreed to play for us, and reunited with his Combo Combo mates for the occasion – the first time they’d played together in a very long time. They simply killed it. My god he was talented. A baritone as rich and deep as a gold mine: the voice of an operatic rockabilly romantic. When a play I had written opened at the MTC Warehouse, I was shocked and honoured backstage to be greeted out of the blue by Gene, who had made a special effort to attend.
The last time I spoke to Gene was at SIR’s 20th Anniversary celebration, and he seemed so proud and happy to be there it made my night. Of course, had I known at the time how little time he had left ahead of him, I wouldn’t have left his side. But, as they say, life goes on for all of us. Until it doesn’t.
I am so proud to have called Gene my friend. Perhaps, like Mercutio, a star of Gene’s brilliance can only burn for so long. How lucky we all were to bear witness to it before it went out.