19 Dec From Brooklyn to Boynton Beach: a visit with a pioneering performer
We reconnected with Lynn Lavner last summer thanks to my father’s late-life nostalgia. Though he’d lived in Florida for close to thirty years, his mind had been stuck on his happiest time, the late 1970s in Brooklyn. It had been a pretty wretched period for his beloved hometown–crime, for one, economic distress, for another–but not for him. A small crew of people were running around various venues in the New York area, performing a musical written he’d co-written with his dear friend, Chuck Reichenthal. Hit Tunes from Flop Shows was its name. Lavner, a teacher at Ditmas Junior High School, which I’d happened to attend, had been the show’s first musical director.
Hit Tunes met with great success, and my father was on top of the world. By 1988, though, my parents left their beloved New York, with my father’s dreams of becoming a big show business success dashed by reality. That’s a story for another day.
One day last August, almost immediately after I’d arrived on the redeye for a visit, my father demanded to know, as if he’d been waiting to ask, “Where’s Lynn Lavner?” He knew I loved to search for people, and we’d had a number of marathon sessions where we sleuthed out names from the past–with varying success. For some reason, her name hadn’t come up before.
It took me about twenty seconds to find her. As luck would have it, she and her partner of 41 years, Ardis–whom my father remembered as a frequent attendee at the show, back in the day–were living about fifteen minutes away. They’d left Brooklyn, too. My father demanded to know her number, and punched it into the keypad on his phone without even checking to see the time. Lynn answered, as if she’d been sitting around just waiting for this call from the ghost of long-ago. Suddenly, she and Ardis were expected for lunch two days hence.
What Lynn had been up to since we’d last been in touch decades ago was remarkable. She’d left teaching, and become a major figure on the LGBT performance circuit, though I don’t think they called it that, then. From the gay and lesbian clubs in New York, she’d gone on tour around the world as “America’s most politically incorrect performer,” hosting at women’s festivals and other venues that were boldly being staged. She’d become the public voice of the crusade for gay equal rights at a critical, early time in the movement.
Here’s my talk with Lynn, taped in Delray Beach, Florida in October. My father was in the ICU on life support when she and I had this conversation. She and Ardis were the last (non-medical personnel) besides my mother to see him conscious. They’d hosted my parents for their 61st anniversary the day before he’d collapsed; they even practiced a song together that night that Lynn was planning to play at their upcoming celebration.
I took great solace in not just reconnecting with Lynn but getting to know a bit more about her fantastic, ground-breaking career, performing around the world in the name of equal rights in the perfect blend of funny and poignant. I only wish my father could have joined us; he passed away in October. Instead of a party, we hosted a memorial service for him. To have in the room this pioneering performer–and a healthy dollop of Brooklyn, a connector to his happier time–was bittersweet. It’s almost as if we’d never lost touch, but the life she’d lived since we had is one you should know about.