November 7 marks one year since the prolific and much talked about Joel Markowitz, who had created the largest network of theater reviewers on the East Coast, passed away of ALS—way before his time. We remember him and want to honor him through this Open Letter by theater writer Henrik Eger.
Joel, dear Joel,
I will never forget the 2015-16 New Year’s party at the Victorian home of Deb Miller, one of Philadelphia’s most prolific theater reviewers. She shared with her guests that Joel Markowitz, the influential editor of DC Metro Theater Arts [DCMTA], had invited her to join his team of writers.
I can still feel the excitement that night and the aura that came with your name. I checked out your DC website and read many of the fine reviews by your wide range of writers. I also came across this wonderful interview with you, conducted by Ellouise Schoettler (Oct. 2013), which brought out a great deal of what made you special.
A few days later, a stranger called and spoke at such neck-breaking speed that I didn’t even catch his name. He told me that he liked my way of writing and then informed me that he wanted me to become his “Senior Interviewer.” I still had no idea who that stranger was. I even had to ask twice, and then I realized it was you—the much talked about Joel Markowitz.
“I even found and read some summaries of your plays,” you added. I was puzzled. To my knowledge, no editor had spent that much time reading my work before he brought me into the fold—especially as I had not even applied for such a position.
Bridge building between theaters and audiences
Joel, I soon recognized that you not only promoted good plays, musicals, ballets, and all the artists involved, but you also went all out to support your writers—stressing our role as bridge builders between the theater world and potential audiences.
Within only three years after you and your brother Bruce had founded DCMTA in March 2012, you selected a group of some of the best theater critics in Philadelphia and put the city of brotherly love on the page even more than before—with one review on DCMT after another.
A gentle soul with a strong New York accent, frequently bubbling over with enthusiasm, and a proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association, you had little patience for elitist critics who exclude the audience to show off their knowledge and power. With your “we the people” philosophy, you wanted us to open doors to the richness, wisdom, and freedom that theater can offer. Yes, Joel, you were “a critic for the people,” as David Siegel put it in his poignant tribute to your life and your achievements.
Frequently, when I talked with audience members after a show, they’d tell me that their son, an actor, or their aunt, a singer, had been mentioned in a DCMetro article. I rarely experienced such personal responses to articles on any of the other excellent websites or magazines that feature theater arts in the U.S.
When joy and support for theater come from compassion
You called me frequently and we talked about theater and life, life and theater. We also talked about our formative years and how they had shaped us. Fairly early on, you told me that you were Jewish and had a tough time growing up, “because some people thought I was different and didn’t fit in.”
Joel, I related. I didn’t fit in either. I shared with you what had bothered me for a long time: Having found out that my father, an intelligent and cheerful young journalist, wrote in intolerant ways about “Jews, Catholics, and Negroes.” Worse, as a result of his work as a German propaganda officer and war correspondent, first in occupied France and then in the Soviet Union, he contributed to the injustices of the Third Reich. Joel, you couldn’t see that I was shaking when I told you that I felt terrible about something over which I had no control either.
Your response floored me: “It’s not your fault. Just as it was not my fault that I am who I am.” I realized that you had addressed another aspect of your growth. Your joy and belief in theater came from your understanding of human frailty. You turned old pain into your philosophy of being real and accepting of life—an act which propelled you and your work forward in the most creative and loving ways. Fearless, no matter the calamity, you embraced life and loved the world. Nothing could stop you from your personal mission, your tikkun olam—your healing of the world through theater.
An editor’s ALS diary: “Keeping my legacy alive!”
Joel, you often talked about the many illnesses you experienced throughout life. You even risked a dangerous operation and proudly told us how much weight you were losing and that you could now buy nice new trousers. DCMTA and your own life looked better than ever before. And then, in the midst of your whirlwind approach to life, almost out of the blue, you were hit—not by a truck, but by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.
March 3, 2017:You knew hundreds of actors, singers, dancers, directors, theater designers, and ushers personally. You featured them in countless podcasts and wrote about many others, including Michael Aylward, a member of one of your favorite groups, the DC Gay Men’s Chorus. You interviewed him, even though you were already struggling with ALS. Though it was one of your last few interviews, your optimism still came through.
March 30: Emily Canavan started a GoFundMe project on your behalf. After talking about your endless support for others, she wrote:
“As many of you know, Joel was recently diagnosed with ALS and is about to be overrun by mountains of bills. His insurance will only help with a percentage of the costs, and he will have to come up with everything else. Unfortunately, the percentage he will be paying is high and good treatment is expensive. This breaks my heart. We cannot make him better [. . .], but if all of us little guys & gals kick in, we can make his life a little less stressful, and allow him to spend his time with his family, friends, and the theater (the man is a theater addict!). [. . .]
“We all have limitations, but we are all part of a unique community, and together we can help out a man who has helped us all.” [. . .]
April 21: You made your struggle with ALS public on Facebook with this note: “My Battle with ALS and my Interview on Fox 5 DC Which Aired Last Night”:
“I was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) 2 months ago. Since then my world has been turned upside down. I have accepted the grim news that this is one battle I might not win because there is only one medicine (which I am taking) that prolongs the lives of ALS patients for a short time. But there is hope—Brainstorm has been using Stem Cell therapy and they have had some success, and they are beginning a third phase trial at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“My brother Saul, who is a great PR guy, knows Jim Lokay, and Jim agreed to interview me and my writer John Stoltenberg who, along with David Siegel, have become my voice since this horrible disease has made me sound like a goose. [. . .]
“Watch the two-part interview here. The theater community that I love and have promoted for many years has rallied on my behalf.
“The Board of the Gary Maker Award has awarded a special lifetime award to me. Gary was a good friend and he died from oral cancer, which he fought so bravely and courageously. He has inspired me to fight ALS with all my soul and strength.
“Lorraine Treanor of DC Theatre Scene and Carolyn Griffin of Metro Stage have planned a cabaret for me on Monday, May 1st at 7 PM, where The Gary Maker Award will be presented to me.”
Joel, fighting for your life, yet feisty, upfront, and practical as you always were, you added a link that I loved: “You can purchase tickets here.”
May 1: On YouTube and social media, many members of the theater community all over the US shared their appreciation and affection for you and your work in A Cabaret celebrating Joel Markowitz—a sold-out performance.
May 6: Emily Canavan shared this piece of good news, “Just saw Brighton Beach Memoirs at Theater J with Joel Markowitz. It was fabulous!!!! When we got to my car I got a notification telling me that Joel’s GoFundMe site just reached the $20,000 mark!!!!! Boatloads of love to all who have contributed and all who are about to … (no time like the present!!).”
On the same day, you listed this Reuters article, “FDA approves first ALS treatment in more than two decades” and added this hope-inspiring comment: “Amazing news!” Eventually, the GoFundMe raised $22,094 by 358 people in 8 months.
May 10: You posted an interview by Patricia Mitchell with Everyman founding artistic director Vincent M. Lancisi about his new production, The Show Must Go On!—your lifelong motto, not only during these difficult days.
May 14: Family was vital to you when you wrote: “Happy Mother’s Day to all the Moms in my family and your family!”
May 17: Facebook announced, “752 friends posted on Joel’s timeline for his birthday.” You sent a thank you note. Little did we know that it would be your last birthday.
May 22: You wrote this entry, which shook me and many others: “And how was your ALS week? This past week I lost the ability to dress myself, walk into the shower, get into my bed, turn the washer on, turn the convection oven on, and my eyes are stuck in one position. I was always a good ‘pupil’ so I thought that wouldn’t happen to me. And how was your week?
“Thank you ALS Association, my brothers, and David C. for helping me with all kinds of handles and gadgets to make my life easier, and all of you for your support and best wishes.
“There is hope with this new medicine [Radicava] available on August 1st.”
June 7: “I am down to 138 [pounds]. I am withering away. It sucks to be me. Damn this ALS!” And you added a link to ALSA to support their research for a cure. Your willingness to stay honest and real touched many of your friends. Gwen L. Cummings, speaking for many, wrote in response to your distress signal: “I am so heart-hurt to read this…. sending strength, positive energy and light.”
June 12: A few days later, you wrote your last article for your beloved DCMT—“DC Mega Hits ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and ‘Come From Away’ Honored at The Tony Awards.”
June 17: Determined to keep DCMetro financially stable, you wrote, “If you have a Capital Fringe show I wanted to offer you a PWYC price to advertise your Fringe show on DCMetro TheaterArts.”
June 18: A lifelong bachelor, you wrote this message—“Happy Father’s Day to all my brothers and to all the fathers out there.”
June 21: Determined to help the next generation learn from you and your fellow writers and editors, you posted this message: “If you know a local writer, critic, and journalism major who is looking for a summer intern position send them my way. They will learn with many veterans. They will help with our Capital Fringe coverage.”
June 22: Undaunted, you posted this moving message with a photo of the device you were beginning to use now to communicate with the world: “Good morning. This is a test message using my tobii. It will allow me to speak with you as my ALS gets worse. The tobii is an alternative communication device.”
July 6: Your health deteriorated rapidly. Yet, you not only shared the news with us, but ended the way only Joel Markowitz could, with something you claimed would make you happy, when, in reality, it was something that was to make all of us happy:
“Hello this is joel. I am practicing on my tobii.
It’s getting harder and harder to type. My hands are a mess. And my voice is almost gone. But I’m still fighting like hell but it ain’t easy.
Wanna make me happy? Click here: http://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/”
July 22: The Philadelphia DC Metro writers presented their Joel Markowitz Tribute video in your honor. We were happy that you liked it. And we loved the comments from your supporters in the U.S. who had watched that short video, perhaps best summarized by two of your friends:
Bonnie J. Berger: “This is so dear. You are so loved, Joel. Take it in. Know that you have so many folks supporting you. Much love to you.”
Jane Coyne: “Joel, it’s so great to see this. Speaking personally, I loved every minute we spent together, and am sorry I never got to meet the lovely writers from Philly who created this well-deserved tribute. Love you, and I hope you are realizing how much we all care about and appreciate you!”
August 28: In spite of all the love and support for you from all over the world, ALS made life unbearable for you: “ALS is shit. I am afraid to step on a scale. I am still fighting but it’s getting harder,” you wrote.
“I won’t be able to type soon so I wanted to thank some people who are taking care of me: my brother Bruce who has given so much to care for me. And to my other members of my family who have taken care of me – Thank you. And to my DCMTA Family – Thank you for keeping my legacy alive! And to those of you who I did offend – forgive me. And to the LITTLE GUYS – you will always be my heroes.”
August 29: You published my last DCMTA interview under your editorship—“Tackling Suicide on Stage.”
September 7: You chose Nicole Hertvik to serve as the new Editor-in-Chief of DCMTA. Later, she compiled a moving farewell: “Members of the Theater Community Reflect on What Joel Markowitz Meant to Them” and gave an interview about your work on National Public Radio.
September 18: Celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, you posted this message, “I want to wish my family a happy new year and I want to thank them for their support during my battle with ALS and to the many visitors who came to visit me and to my family thank you for your support and love. I am fighting hard with all my strength.”
September 20: In spite of your physical deterioration, you kept your sense of humor. Referencing a special medication, you wrote to us on Facebook, “Radicava was not in my future. My ALS progressed so rapidly that I am not a candidate. Bummer.”
You laughed, even in the face of death. Your wit helped all of us to get through the event we all dreaded. As Lorraine Treanor wrote for DC Theatre Scene: “Bruce cited Joel’s renowned wit when he described how he announced his diagnosis to his Buffalo, New York-born family. ‘I’m sad to tell you that I will not live to see the Buffalo Bills win the Super Bowl,’ he said of the city’s benighted football team, now seventeen years from its last playoff appearance. ‘On the other hand, neither will any of you.’”
October 6, your last entry on your personal Facebook page: In spite of your physical pain and the loss of your voice, you stayed positive when you wrote:
“Dear friends: I am hanging in there. Thank you for your prayers and thanks to Nicole, David, Patricia, John, Brett, Michael, Tim, and Deb for keeping DCMTA alive, and thanks to the writers for your dedication. I am so grateful. And thanks to my family and friends for your love. I know I have not been easy to deal with, but I was fighting like hell.”
On Tuesday, November 7 at 2:40 pm, surrounded by your loved ones at your home in North Bethesda, MD, you left us for good.
* * * * * * * *
Joel, you saw goodness and potential in everything and everybody. Your unwavering support for theater and artists of all backgrounds made you stand out. Your words of encouragement impacted the lives of many theater professionals all over the United States.
Next time I go to Maryland, I will visit you at the Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park in Clarksburg. I want to listen to you and talk with you:
Joel Markowitz the editor, Joel the mensch.