By: Kate Maguire, Artistic Director/CEO
Neil Ellenoff and his first spouse Budd Mann were in the audience at our Stockbridge campus long before I arrived at Berkshire Theatre in 1995. I began to recognize them as they often sat in the front row and attended frequently. They were charming and incredibly knowledgeable about theatre. Years later, I would go through Neil’s library at his Upper West side NYC apartment, which had a vast storage of playbills and plays to help select seasons of productions for us.
The relationship truly began when I asked about their professions one evening after a show at the Unicorn. Budd, I learned, had designed window displays “in the day” in NYC. Neil told me he was an accountant and as he knew I had a young son, Neilhe advised me to suggest an accounting career to him. As Neil said, “accountants will always be needed.” The reality was that our theatre was in need of accounting advice and a new treasurer on our board. I took the opportunity to ask Neil if he would like to become more involved in Berkshire Theatre. His response, his very dry with a slight smile response was, “of course.” And so the relationship began. A relationship that had a huge impact on my own personal life and most definitely helped define a future for our theatre.
He was generous, quick witted, knew theatre well, could sing through all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s pieces from memory, appreciated Ionesco as much as a light musical, had travelled the world, enjoyed cocktails, tea, puzzle making and conversation with dear friends most days at 4 pm, was an ‘old school’ Republican though, liberal in his social views, had a sense of humor that was often unexpected and could make an entire room shift in a minute from dour seriousness to outrageous laughter.
At our theatre, he became our elder statesman, often defining what the code of decorum should be at meetings. He understood that the theatre by nature is ever changing and he never panicked, Neil was always the steadiest in the room. I never saw a temper in him, though we knew what his boundaries were as he made his positions clear with kindness and confidence. He was honest and lived by a strong code of ethics. His security in temperament was inspiring.
When his first spouse Budd passed, Neil left alone shortly after, alone on a cruise trip around the world that they had previously planned. It was, he said, the time he needed and that was respectfully due to their life together. Years later we were thrilled to know he had married a new love, Rick Talbot, and they too found great joy together.
For me personally, I looked forward to seeing or hearing a message from him on my phone. Most often when I listened, he was singing a tune to me and I in turn would call him back and we would sing some old melody together. We could sing through Al Jolson albums and time forgotten musicals. He was there for me always offering wisdom and generosity. And as we grew closer, I would end all conversations with “I love ya Neil” and he would close: “likewise.”
And then he told me the illness he had could not be cured. “I’ve really enjoyed myself Kate, it’s been a good run, our theatre is very important. I’ve been fortunate, and when I go – I will leave the theatre with a gift that I hope will make your lives more fortunate as well.”
The gift Neil left to our theatre was indeed transformational. It has made all the difference in our moving forward and in surviving serious challenges. The treasure of his time and care was all important and while I ache sometimes to sing just one more “April Showers” with him, we are fortunate indeed to have borne witness to the flowers that have bloomed in our lives thanks to dear Neil.
May his memory be eternal.