September 6, 2012

In Memoriam - Robert LaRocco

Introduction

On August 27, 2012, a man I love very much passed away. Robert LaRocco was 63 years old; too young to have left us, but old enough that he had left his mark on countless others as a teacher, mentor, friend, partner, father-figure, and even a beloved "uncle" to me and my family. On September 4, 2012 that same family, along-side dozens of people who knew and loved him dearly, held a funeral service where any who wished could speak about his life and how he had changed it. What follows are, in order of presentation, eulogies prepared by some of his closest friends and family.  Where possible, original grammar, punctuation, and formatting have been preserved in their original form. 


Sam Austin

Rob LaRocco is the last person who would ever permit me to stand in front of an audience and be boring. So even though my subject is a sprawling epic, I will try to keep my tribute brief and diverting. Rob and I first crossed paths in Fall 1981 when Rick Rosen, a dentist who hoped to quit his day job by producing a musical I’d written, gave me Rob’s name as someone who was selling a piano. All I knew about Rob is that he was selling a piano, and I lost interest as soon as I heard it was a Story & Clark piano.

There the matter might have ended had Rick not invited Rob to join him one night at a restaurant in the Village where I was playing. Rob immediately struck me as a dynamic and charismatic presence, with a smile that could light up the entire room. But he really got my attention when he learned that Rick’s plan was to produce my musical in Connecticut for a transfer to Broadway. “Why do you want to mount a whole production in Connecticut? I could understand if you just want to get your chops up, but if you want to bring this show to New York what makes you think you’re going to get producers up to Connecticut to see it? Instead of wasting your time with Connecticut regional theater, why not do a workshop in New York to begin with?”

What Rob didn’t know is that the other people at the table were the board of directors for that waste-of time Connecticut theater company. This was the first of many occasions I heard Rob say something that, while undeniably true, might not have been the most politic comment to make. And even though later that same evening he was apologizing to me for offending the board, I was delighted that he had. I felt as though I finally had someone in my corner who knew what he was talking about. Then when he invited me back to his apartment and played me some of his many beautiful songs, I realized he was much more than just an outspoken guy selling a piano. He was my hero.

It took me a couple of weeks to move in, but after that night I never really left. And through the thirteen years I was by his side, we met and cultivated all kinds of wonderful people, shared untold splendid adventures, and even dared a few years in to start collaborating on what turned out more often than not to be some terrific material. Having promised to be brief, I couldn’t possibly bear witness to all his acts of caring and generosity, but I will let one of the earliest stand for all. My sister had recently moved to New York with the hope of pursuing a singing career, and Rob suggested we visit the Winter Garden theater just so she could see how they had transformed it for the big smash hit of that season, Cats. We got all the way to the lobby of the theater before Rob whipped out a ticket for one of the best seats in the house at that evening’s performance, handed it to my sister and said “Enjoy.”

[I want to go off book for a moment here because after I wrote this I remembered another of Rob’s many generous acts that was also a crazy adventure with many amusing episodes and one that I wanted to share. He volunteered for Fountain House, a wonderful nonprofit organization in midtown that is basically schizophrenics helping each other to function. Rob created and played many Fountain House shows, and on one of those occasions I was charged with getting his parents to the show after Rob had already gone ahead. I wanted to make sure I had the right address to give the cabbie, so I called ahead and one of the schizophrenics answered. I asked “Can you tell me where you are located?” and she said, “I’m in the lobby.”]

Shortly after we got together I told Rob that I had thrown away the card with his name and phone number. When I told him why, he said “Oh I would’ve refused to sell you that piano, it should only go to a beginner.” Even then I had no reason to doubt that he would do what he thought was in someone else’s best interest even if it meant sacrificing his own. Oddly enough I never doubted that, even through all the strange twists our relationship took. His commitment to caring for and nurturing those around him was that absolute and unwavering, even if he often made you feel like you were wasting your time with Connecticut regional theater. He was always in our corner. He loved us all. And we will never forget him. And we will miss him more than words can say.


Trevor Schechter

This is bullshit.

I hope you'll forgive my irreverence. I know he would. Rob was often an irreverent and inappropriate man. Not out of some misguided sense of rebellion like the average teenager, nor out of a desire to cause trouble or make people uncomfortable. He was the way he was because it was sincere; because it was genuine.

Sincerity was all-important to Rob. Ironic, I suppose, given his commitment to the world of theater where nearly everything you say and do is technically a lie. But as any good performer will tell you, if you can't feel it yourself, no one else will. And so, that's what he tried to instill in me my whole life: mean it, or no one will care. And he must have meant it: look around you at everyone who cares. Any doubt that any of us may have had about whether or not he was right is gone as of this moment. We all cared. More people than can possibly be here today cared; all because he maintained the strength needed to be sincere and true to his sense of self.

I say "the strength needed" only because I know how hard it is to be what you are in this world. I suspect that all of you do as well. So much pressure to conform, so much resistance to change; it all works against us. But Rob found his way to stay sincere: he was a creator. In the struggle to leave our mark on the world, Rob left his by creating sincere, honest, and admittedly crass people out of everyone he touched. I can only imagine that some time ago in his life, he had simply grown tired of dealing with the all the insincere showmanship (both on stage and in real life) and decided to just do better himself.

But that alone wouldn't leave a mark. Maybe a footnote reading "here lies a bitter and irreverent man", but nothing worth remembering. Rob, whether he wanted to or not, made sure he'd be remembered: he put himself into the world. Ask yourself: how hard did I have to work to understand Rob? How much effort did it take to really understand what was going on under the hood? I suspect the answer may be: a lot. But why was it so hard? Surely someone who wore his heart on his sleeve like he did wouldn't be difficult to figure out. Well, that's what makes Rob memorable: that work you were doing wasn't really about understanding him, it was about understanding yourself.

Rob had an uncanny sense for when people weren't being honest. He wasn't a human polygraph machine, but he knew when people didn't mean what they were doing or saying. He knew sincerity when he felt it, and it was all he wanted from us. None of the pomp and circumstance, none of the formality: just you, as you want to be. And most amazing of all was that he could bring that out in you. He went above and beyond to make you more like you. He would scoff at attempts to play something down; shove you, willingly or not, into the spotlight; and laugh at your attempts to be anything more or less than what you are.

Now some might think of this as cruel or unfeeling. It isn't. His actions carried the sincerity he felt was needed in you. When he made you learn that song, or pushed you onto that stage, he did it because he knew that whatever you may suffer, it was in the service of your evolution as a genuine human being. He was making you into you, because he didn't want anyone else. He didn't care for your status, your power, or even your beliefs. He wanted to see who you were when stripped of all pretenses. He wanted to see what you'd do with an audience that cares; even if that audience was just him. He wanted to care about you and most importantly, he wanted you to care about you.

It is a rare gift to be able to look so honestly at yourself and come out of it stronger than you were. So often we hide our flaws and make excuses for our mistakes. Rob wouldn't stand for that. He would make you confront you at every turn and he would be there to guide you away from the despair that often comes from being so honest with yourself. He wanted a world filled with honest men and women who can look at themselves with sincere love, and he would go to hell and back to see it become a reality.

You see, the truth of the matter is: everything you are, even the ugly, is still you. And in the mind of Rob LaRocco, that made you beautiful. That made you magnificent. And it made you worth caring about. No bull.


Alexandra "Sasha" Schechter

For Sasha's eulogy, I would like to direct you to her Tumblr where she has posted it in its entirety.  It's a beautiful story spoken from the heart with great feeling and sincerity.  I encourage you all to read it.


Saletta Boni

THE TUESDAY AFTER LABOR DAY.

THE TUESDAY AFTER LABOR DAY IS THE TRADITIONAL BACK TO SCHOOL DAY IN AMERICA. SO IT WAS FOR ME 55 YEARS AGO TODAY - THE DAY I WENT BACK TO SCHOOL- A NEW SCHOOL. THAT DAY 55 YEARS AGO TODAY I MET ROBERT LAROCCO. 8 YEAR OLD ROBERT PERMITTED NO ONE TO CALL HIM ANYTHING BUT ROBERT (NO ROB, NO BOB, ONLY HIS AUNT LIVIA GOT DISPENSATION TO CALL HIM “ROBBIE”). HE WAS ROBERT AND YOU KNEW THAT FROM THE DAY YOU MET HIM AND IT REMAINED SO FOR THE FIRST 20 ODD YEARS OF HIS LIFE.

ROBERT AND I LIVED ONLY ABOUT A BLOCK APART IN DERBY CONNECTICUT. THAT TUESDAY AFTER LABOR DAY IN 1957 WE WERE BOTH STARTING THE THIRD GRADE AND.. FOR ME.. IT WAS A NEW SCHOOL, THE FRANKLIN SCHOOL, HAVING JUST MOVED TO A NEW STREET, TO SENTINEL HILL. ROBERT OF COURSE WAS AN EXPERT ON THE FRANKLIN SCHOOL. HE HAD MOVED TO SENTINEL HILL A WHOLE YEAR EARLIER. THAT DAY IN 1957 WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY OF A LIFETIME. WE BEGAN A FRIENDSHIP THAT TURNED INTO A LOVE AFFAIR THAT NOT EVEN DEATH CAN INTERRUPT. I LOVED ROBERT. AT TIMES I WAS ENRAGED WITH HIM, OFTEN IN THOSE SCHOOL YEARS IN DEEP TROUBLE BECAUSE OF THE PLOTS HE INVOLVED US IN (WHICH SOMEHOW ALWAYS LEFT ME HOLDING THE “YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER” BAG.) AND THERE WERE TIMES WHEN I NEEDED TO PUSH HIM AWAY. BUT FOR ALL THESE YEARS I HAVE KNOWN THAT HE LOVED ME, THAT HE KNEW ME BETTER THAN ANY OTHER PERSON I HAVE KNOWN, THAT HE SUPPORTED MY SOUL AND MY EVERY DREAM. TOGETHER ROBERT AND I WERE ABLE TO ACHIEVE WHAT IN DERBY, LIKE IN ALMOST EVERY SMALL TOWN IN AMERICA, DURING THE 1950S AND EARLY 60S WAS VIEWED NOT ONLY AS UNACHIEVABLE BUT ALSO AS UNSPEAKABLE …WE BUILT AND NURTURED DREAMS AND PLANS THAT WE WERE BOUND TO ONE ANOTHER TO SUPPORT-

WE FOUGHT - SOMETIMES WITH EACH OTHER - BUT ALWAYS -IN THE END- WE FOUGHT TOGETHER TO HELP ONE ANOTHER TO LIVE THE LIVES WE DREAMED… IN A WORLD WHICH WE DEFINED AS GOOD- FULL OF NOT SO GOOD POTHOLES ALL AROUND- BUT FUNDAMENTALLY A WORLD WHICH WE ALWAYS BELIEVED DEMANDED GOOD OF US TO THE BEST OF OUR ABILITIES TO DO GOOD IN A COMPLICATED WORLD. AND WE WERE REWARDED IN A SHARED BELIEF THAT THAT COMPLICATED WORLD COULD AND WOULD GIVE BACK IN KIND, IF YOU DO NOT GIVE IN AND DO NOT GIVE UP.

IT HAS BEEN A JOURNEY OF LOVE, OF AMAZING GROWTH, AND OF OUTRAGEOUSLY HARD WORK - FOLLOWING DREAMS THAT SO MANY TIMES WE COULD ONLY COUNT ON EACH OTHER TO SUPPORT. THE EXTRAORDINARY LOVE WE SHARED WAS UNCONDITIONALLY GIVEN TO MY CHILDREN, TO BOTH OF THEM- TO EACH ON THE DAY THEY WERE BORN. HE LOVED THEM AND NURTURED THEM AND, THROUGH THOSE RELATIONSHIPS HE BUILT FIRST WITH TREVOR AND THEN WITH SASHA—THE BOND HE AND I SHARED GREW EVEN STRONGER.

I WILL NEVER STOP COUNTING ON ROBERT FOR LOVE AND SUPPORT BECAUSE NOTHING IN HEAVEN OR ON EARTH, NOT EVEN DEATH, CAN INTERRUPT THE POWER OF A LOVE THAT PROFOUND. I WILL NOT SAY GOODBYE TODAY ONLY THAT OUR ENERGY WILL ALWAYS BE JOINED…. THAT OUR JOURNEY WILL NEVER END AND THAT I KNOW… THAT THE ESSENCE OF WHO WE ARE WILL ALWAYS BE CONNECTED. I LOVE YOU ROBERT LAROCCO. AND DAMN YOU FOR MAKING SUCH AN EARLY EXIT FROM THIS STAGE. SEE YOU SOMEHOW ON THE NEXT ONE WHERE I AM SURE YOU WILL CONTINUE TO BE A SHINING STAR.


Paul Steinberg

I’m smiling, even though I’m heart-broken, because when Rob’s students were singing too seriously or too earnestly, he would call out “Smile!” He wasn’t even looking at them; he was looking at the music, but he could hear it in their voices. I’ve sat through countless of my niece’s and nephew’s lessons and watched Rob do that over and over, and it’s easy to hear the difference in the singing when they’re smiling or not smiling. But it wasn’t until I took a few voice lessons myself and heard Rob yell at me to “Smile!” that I came to realize that smiling doesn’t just improve the sound of your voice, but it actually changes the energy in your body—it gets you out of your head and into your body—and then everything looks and feels much better. So I will try to keep smiling through this and in the days ahead. Rob would definitely approve.

When I first met Rob, I had already been an uncle for 11 years—the first four an uncle by love to the kids of a very close friend, and after that an uncle by blood when my sister started having children. Being an uncle had become the most important aspect of my identity to me; it brought me more joy and more satisfaction than anything else I was doing at the time. Not having children of my own, I was able to devote all of my parental instincts to my nieces and nephews, and I was a pretty good uncle. Then I met Rob and something wonderful happened. Here was someone doing the same thing as I was, and even more so. And it was the first time I ever met anyone else doing it like this. Now I had a companion and a model, someone who really got who I was in a way that no one else did. I could see myself in him, and he could see himself in me. Rob wasn’t just an ordinary uncle—the kind that has his own life and who loves the kids but mostly spends time with them only on holidays, birthdays and special occasions. No, Rob was a consistent and nurturing presence in all aspects of Trevor’s and Sasha’s lives, and like good parents do, he learned as much from the kids as they learned from him.

At that time, even though I was loving being an uncle, I was still struggling with the desire I had always had to be a parent of my own children, but I hadn’t been able to figure out any way of doing that that felt right to me. But when I got to know Rob, I finally saw that being an uncle could be a thing in itself, and it suited me perfectly—probably better than being a parent myself. One thing about Rob was that he had no absolutely use for authority or convention, and in fact he actively worked to blaze his own path despite pressures from family, friends, community or culture. So Rob made up his own way of being an uncle, and he perfected it. There are no words to describe how much it meant to me to know him and get close to him. By the way he lived, he helped me understand who I am and what I want to be. We were the “gay uncles” (along with many others), and thanks in part to Rob, there is nothing else I could ever want to be.

I want to say one more thing, and if Rob were here in his body, it would make him very mad. But he would not want me to speak at all if I didn’t say at least one thing he could fight with me about. The thing about these fights was that at least half of the time I didn’t really believe that he believed in the position he was taking, and the rest of the time, two seconds after the fight was over, he was back to normal and saying that he likes seeing others loving what they’re doing even if he didn’t like it or approve of it himself. He was like that—judgmental in one sense but open and accepting in another sense.

Anyway, there is a teaching in an ancient yoga scripture (of course Rob would snort with contempt at the word “scripture”). The teaching is that we never die, because we are never born—our true essence or spirit or soul exists independent of the body. The body is like a suit of clothes: it wears out over time and then we cast it off, but that does not change anything about who we truly are. Death has no effect on the existence of the spirit. Rob lives on in Sasha…in Trevor…in Saletta…in Tony and Sam and David…in me…in all of his students…in all of you…and in everyone else he touched. And he is here right now (probably rolling his eyes). We can see him, hear him and feel him if we let go of our assumptions and they way we’ve been conditioned to think about the way the world works. That’s one of the ways Rob lived his life—shattering assumptions and convention—and if we can learn that from him, he can remain a constant and loving presence in our lives.


Tony Davis

Over thirteen years ago on Halloween I met Rob, from that moment on there were few days that we were not side-by-side; it was an instant attraction.
It was not just his wit and his writing talent that made him special. It was how his heart opened up to me; I was the privedged one to be loved by him.
You could debate on any subject for hours; and you would usually win.
We had built an amazing life together.
Full of adventures.

He was the Master of collecting quotes. One of his favorites that he would remind me of when I questioned myself on making important decisions was:

TAKE RISKS;
IF YOU WIN, YOU WILL BE HAPPY,
IF YOU LOSE
YOU WILL BE WISE

You were my strength.
I always knew you would be there. I'm going to miss those 3am wake-ups because you couldn't sleep; you just wanted to talk and get a hug.
I'm going to miss you calling me at 5pm everyday to see what time I was going to be home from work.
You encouraged me to go back to school; which I've been doing one-class at a time.

Then this year we talked about getting married.
It had only been conversation until just a few weeks ago when we were having dinner with our friends Janet and Larry, you suddenly out of nowhere blurted out, "We're going to get married."
We went home that evening and made plans to get married this October on Halloween. My life was complete. Now you're gone.

Goodbye my love.
Big hugs to you.
Life will never be the same.

Epilogue

Robert LaRocco is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx along side some of the most well known and beloved musicians and composers of our time.  A fitting resting place for a great artist and an even greater man.  I thank all of you for indulging in me in commemorating someone I loved more than all these words could possibly say.  I invite all of you, my readers, to contribute any words of your own to this memorial by posting in the comments section.  Don't hold back; speak from the heart.  That's how he would want it.

Rest in Peace, Rob.

We are Sam, Paul, Tony, Saletta, Sasha, and Trevor, and that's our Frame of Mind.


2 comments:

  1. For Saletta, My positive energy is with you, please draw from it. While we heard from his NYC core of friends, his greatest friend and soul mate from the Valley-me-also shares many of those expressed feelings. I would like to think as our paths crossed over and over again sharing a multitude of feelings, opinions and joys that I helped him make that daring jump from a valley Derby High School teacher to a successful NYC artist. Maybe I didn't say it enough Rob but, you helped me as a person and an artist at a time in my life when I did not know which of my many paths to follow. Rest in peace my friend........carl......I know sister Sue is probably already singing with you somewhere.....:)

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  2. Mr LaRocco was my grammar school music teacher at Franklin School. He did a great job of organizing a rough and tumble group of East Derby kids and getting them to sing together in the chorus. I remember many shows we did on the big stage at "the High School". Many of these were over the top productions for us kids of primarily blue collar factory workers. One year my class made a facade of a huge San Francisco cable car to accompany our rendition of "I left my heart in San Francisco". When the "golden sun will shine" lyrics were sang, one kid had a painted sun on a long stick and floated it over the cable car. Another year, he made up a bunch of songs about animals and we had to dress up as the animals and act out the motions of the various beasts as the songs were being performed. What led me to this page was a roundabout search based on a song Robert wrote that was performed by our chorus and recorded in a small studio in Ansonia where the walls were covered in cardboard egg cartons and foam. Quite an experience for kids who had no prior exposure to anything like this! The recording was for a contest to make a "State Song" and his was entitled "Connecticut is My Homeland". We each got a copy of it on a 45 rpm record but I've long since lost mine. I also remember going to his house on the hilltop in Derby while it was being built, my cousin took piano lessons from him. This is the dumbest thing to remember about it but he was the only person I had ever seen with a telephone in the bathroom! We kids talked about that for years.
    Anyway, thanks for a nice walk down memory lane, and Rest In Peace Mr. LaRocco.

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