Dunkirk NY – I had heard that Neil was in the hospital while I was doing The Hostage at Irish Classical, so I took one of my Sunday mornings to visit him before I had to make my call for the day’s matinee. He was glad to see me, as he always was, and we sat and chatted for a bit. He told me he was going into surgery that coming Tuesday, and he appeared quite confident that everything would be fine. Single bypass and an artery replacement seemed to be on the surgical agenda. I told him I’d check in on him after the surgery if it was OK and he said he’d let me know via email or Facebook. That was the last time I spoke with him before his death this past Wednesday.
The last time I was on stage with him was in 2009 in the Shakespeare in Delaware Park production of The Tempest. He played Alonso, the King of Naples. Kings were Neil’s forté. He played an assorted collection of kings, dukes, cardinals, archbishops, ministers and clergy. His voice had a ring to it that had some authority on stage, and because he was a man with a Falstaff figure, he had an unmistakeable presence. I believe it was Neil who taught me the phrase “It’s good to be King.”
By trade, Neil was a lawyer, though I cannot remember a single instance of him talking about the law unless someone asked him. All he ever talked about was theatre, art, literature. My first encounters with Neil were during the time he served as Executive Director of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, in the early 90s. Neil was a born-and-bred Buffalonian, and he worked hard to save the festival when the University of Buffalo cut off all its support. He was not going to let Buffalo lose their beloved summer festival, “the second-largest outdoor Shakespeare Festival in the country” as he would remind anybody who asked. Even when he stepped down as Executive Director, he stayed on to act in several more productions, becoming a fixture.
But for me personally, Neil’s place in the Buffalo theatre community will be remembered for his personal generosity and genuine affection for actors. Neil loved actors, and he made it his personal business to see to it that actors were treated well under all circumstances. When an actor came from out of town for SDP, the actor stayed in Neil’s house. If he went out for a cocktail after the show, he was always buying your drinks. He was a self-styled “man about town,” always socializing, having lunch with this person or that, going to various events. He held some wonderful cast parties at his “family compound” out in East Aurora. For a time, his brother Danny ran a restaurant and bar below Neil’s law office, and it became the post-Flynn theatre watering hole in Buffalo. And every mid-January, you could bet you would receive an invitation to the annual post-New Year’s Eve brunch that Neil threw at the Roycroft Inn (he called it a “recovery brunch”). I went to several of those, as we gathered to celebrate the year past and get on with the coming year. Neil was always at his best in the presence of actors, regaling them with his enviable wit and charm.
I have a hat Neil gave me one day during a tech run of The Tempest. I was forever jealous of Neil’s cool hats. Being bald, I have to wear a hat pretty much at all times, and when you do tech rehearsals in the park they are outside in the sun. Neil had on this cool Panama hat, and I remember remarking to him, as I was sitting there in my bucket hat protected against the sun, that I could never carry off a hat like that, since I did not possess the grace and charm that Neil had. So he asked me what kinds of hats I did like, and I mentioned that I was looking for a summer newsboy cap of some sort. Sure enough, next day Neil arrives to rehearsal with three lightweight newsboy caps for me to try on. One was straw. I laughed and told Neil it was OK, I did have a good job, and could buy my own cap, but he was insistent I take one. I took the straw cap.
I wrote the following in the Buffalo News comment section on a Gusto Blog entry, and it seems just as appropriate to finish here:
What made Neil Garvey so absolutely special in my heart is that he loved actors. Loved them. Loved them in a way you don’t see too often. He took actors into his heart, his soul, and his home. He fed them, watered them, and was generous in his praise to any actor no matter how small or large the part. Educated, erudite and witty, he regaled actors with stories that would make you guffaw in delight. He was truly “The King” of Buffalo theatre, one who delighted in spreading his generosity to all his friends. Dear God, I will miss him so. Who will ever love us actors as Neil did? -twl