Caldwell Titcomb, Theater and Music Critic — Words of Remembrance
A year ago there was a memorial service for Caldwell Titcomb, invaluable friend of the arts in New England, in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He passed away on June 12, 2011 of leukemia at the age of 84.
By Bill Marx
I have added the piece written for the 2012 Elliot Norton Awards program by critic Iris Fanger to this page. The 30th anniversary ceremony was dedicated to Caldwell. Following this homage I have posted some of the comments that were made at last year’s memorial.
Remembering Caldwell Titcomb
The bio that Caldwell Titcomb, the long-time President of Boston Theater Critics Association until his death on June 13, 2011, at the age of 84, wrote for inclusion in this program each year listed his degrees, titles and credits in detail, but did not begin to reveal the contradictions of this gentle, brilliant man and wonderful friend. Despite holding three Harvard degrees and serving as University Organist for twenty years as well as Professor of Music and Theater Criticism at Brandeis University from 1954-1988, Caldwell was the most modest of souls, never speaking of his own accomplishments. A frugal man who preferred to have pre-theater dinners at MacDonald’s rather than a trendy restaurant, he none-the-less amassed a library of thousands of books which he willed to Brandeis and established a chair in the Department of African American studies at Harvard before he passed away.
Each of us on the committee has Caldwell stories that have passed into legend. We waited for the reports of his annual summer vacations in London when he would attend at least 22 plays and concerts over a 16 day stay, then gleefully send us reviews on his return. He was my frequent companion on trips to out-of-town openings, providing perfect directions to guide us out of Lowell, Hartford or Providence at 11:00 p.m. We’d often listen to the classical radio station on the drive. As soon as the first four notes of the symphony began, Caldwell could identify the title, composer, and often the artist or orchestra that was performing. One evening, before a Kabuki performance downtown, we invited Caldwell to dinner with a group of friends from the Japan Society. When he entered, he bowed and began speaking in fluent Japanese. How was I to know that the U.S. Army had recognized his abilities, sent him to translator school, then to Japan where he was stationed after World War II?
Caldwell remained a stalwart member of the Boston theater and dance community up to two weeks before his passing when he attended two Shakespearean productions in one day. There he’d be, dressed in suit, shirt and tie, with his well-worn briefcase under his arm, in his seat long before the curtain went up. When he’d see his friends, he’d extract clippings of interest that he had collected for us. He appeared on the Paramount stage at last year’s Elliot Norton Awards ceremony to present the 29th annual Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence to Scott Edmiston three weeks before he died.
The legacy he leaves to us and to the Boston theater community he loved so well is both simple and profound. Like Caldwell, we must stand as witness to the accomplishments of those who work on our stages, to record their productions in detail, and to hold the artists to the same standard of excellence that guided him throughout his life. He will be missed.
Last year’s ceremony was moving and heartfelt, with memories shared about Caldwell as a friend, composer, critic, grammarian, teacher, brother, long-time President of the Elliot Norton Awards, and researcher in African-American history. Those who spoke included Camilla Titcomb (Caldwell’s sister), Joyce Kulhawik, Norm Shapiro, Carolyn Clay, David Moran, Iris Fanger, and me. Leigh Barrett sang beautifully.
I have posted my contribution and those of Iris Fanger and Carolyn Clay to the gathering. After those pieces I have kept what I wrote when I learned of Caldwell’s passing.
By Bill Marx
[Flick of the pen — look at watch — jot down the time]
Caldwell was a man of many rituals, and one of his most puzzling was that, at the start of every theater production he attended, he would jot down the time a show started. He pulled the pen out at intermission, marking the end of the first half, and again at the end of the performance. Critic Arthur Friedman would roll his eyes with comic bafflement at this timekeeping—who cares how long a particular performance ran? Whenever I asked Caldwell about what he was up to, he would shrug and look impatient, as if the answer was perfectly obvious.
Part of that mania for detail came from Caldwell’s temperament as a scholar and a teacher—he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the theater and classical music, African-American culture, and grammar. And he was unfailingly generous about sharing that know-how, usually showering others and me with clippings of articles on subjects of interest to the recipient. He was the go-to guy when it came to details about the history of Boston theater, keeping dates and names with dedicated care. He was a genial and ever professional President of the Elliot Norton Awards, known affectionately as El Presidente.
But along with that enormous database was Caldwell’s appetite for theater and music that classifies him as a force of nature—in the decades when I was going to the theater three or four times a week, he was usually there, and he continued to go regularly to theater productions—large, small, and tiny—and concerts until the end of his life. In the 1980s and 1990s, Caldwell, Skip Ascheim, Arthur, and I would climb into what we called “the drama cab” and head off. His will power continued to be an inspiration even until two weeks before his death—he and I went together to see two Shakespeare productions in one day—and he jotted down the times for both of them.
But what I want to testify to now was his loyalty as a friend, which meant so much to me, particularly during rough patches in my life. Four years ago, when I started up my online arts magazine The Arts Fuse, he volunteered his services as a classical music writer—it meant a lot to me, as well as to the music community who highly valued his criticism. Of course, we fought at times over commas and hyphens, but his copy was always on time—as clean and exacting as his mind. When Caldwell committed to something—the theater, music, his friends—his support was unwavering. His was a dependability raised to a metaphysical power.
Friends of Caldwell know that under his imposing exterior was a shy man with a wry sense of humor, a man who would comically scrunch up his face when someone said something foolish, who wore a coat and tie to the theater, even during sweltering summer days. He would never come up and talk to you if you saw him in a crowd—you always had to address him first. When he made his annual trip to London, his energy was herculean—he saw somewhere between 20 and 30 stage productions in a couple of weeks. Caldwell read Middlemarch to pass the time while he waited to buy tickets. He said the novel was considered by critics to be the greatest in English. He told me he only read it when he was in a queue—he finished the book after about a decade.
We are both avid bibliomaniacs, so a particular memory struck me when I heard he had passed: back in the 1990s, we were down in New Haven to see a production at Yale Rep, and we had drifted into a used bookstore. I could tell that Caldwell had found something special—he had a huge smile on his face. Two volumes of Ibsen, in Norwegian, for two dollars, he beamed. For years after that I need only mention Ibsen, and he would smile and deliver in his drawn out, melodramatic coo, “Two volumes of Ibsen. In Norwegian.” And he would playfully poke me in the ribs—“For two dollars.” The same wonderful, childish joy in his face, the same mischievousness I had seen in the bookstore when he bought the volumes years before. Caldwell the collector, bargain hunter, theater lover, and friend—all fused in that playful poke. And that is why I loved him—he was as much a mensch as he was a scholar and a critic.
In the Jewish tradition, there is no heaven or hell—the deceased survives via the memories of them that we share with others. Of course, Caldwell lives on in his music and in his writings, but there is his spirit, his presence. And that is why I am not going to jot down the time my homage to Caldwell ends. As long as we continue to share our memories of this remarkable man, there is no reason to pull out the pen and mark the time . . . this time.
Caldwell/ We Remember Him
by Iris Fanger
I’ve been a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association since 1991 when Joyce Kulhawik and I were invited onto the committee by Elliot Norton. I met Caldwell Titcomb at that time. During the twenty years since I joined the Boston Theater Critics Association, I was fortunate to become a close friend of Caldwell.
I was an admirer of this gentle man, for his standards of excellence in theater and in life, for his kindnesses, for his caring manner to all of us on the committee. He was easy to recognize around town, well known to everyone in the theater community, because he attended each production in town—at the small theaters as well as large– always dressed properly in a suit, shirt and tie, with his well-worn, brown leather briefcase under his arm. He would greet us at the performances and extract the clippings he had saved for each of us, book reviews he thought we’d like, articles on subjects he knew interested us.
Back in the days when we reviewed performances as far afield as Merrimack Rep and Hartford Stage, Caldwell and I often drove together to these out-of-town theaters. He was a perfect guide at driving directions, and knew how to find our way out of Lowell or Hartford at 11:00 at night.We’d chat in the car, but also listen to WGBH. As soon as he heard the first four notes, he could identify the piece of music, the composer and often the artist or orchestra playing.
We understood that Caldwell knew everything about music and theater but I didn’t realize how far his knowledge extended until several summers ago when we were to attend a performance of Japanese Kabuki Theater. We invited him to our house for supper before the show, along with some friends from the Japan Society. He came in, bowed to them, and started speaking in fluent Japanese. How had I known that he was stationed in Japan after the war ? He later told me that after boot camp, the army had recognized his abilities, and sent him to language school. He was amused at my surprise.
It is fitting that we are speaking of Caldwell here, in Harvard’s Memorial Church, because he was a true son of the university. Holder of three degrees, he attended Commencement every June for more than 60 years, except for this year when his illness prevented him . His legacy to the university is an Endowed Chair in the Afro-American Studies department, and the gift of some of his treasures to the Harvard Theatre Collection where he was a regular visitor.
We on the committee will miss his leadership and his friendship. Rest in peace, dear friend.
by Carolyn Clay
One of my favorite stories about Caldwell demonstrates that he was as quick-witted as he was erudite. I was having dinner some years ago in Gloucester with Caldwell and Arthur Friedman, and Arthur ordered a fish dish “au gratin.” Then, when it arrived, he was surprised to find it had cheese on it. And Caldwell opined that he probably thought the menu said “au gratis.”
Of course, if it had said “au gratis,” Caldwell might have ordered it himself. As anyone who ever tried to split a check straight down the middle with him can attest, Caldwell was not a freewheeling man with a dollar. A New England Yankee to the bone, he was going to pay what he owed, and he was not going to pay for half of your glass of wine.
Even knowing this, I was amazed when, year after year – and this was when Caldwell was in his late 70s and early 80s – he and his heavy suitcase would take public transportation from Auburndale to Logan and back for his annual theatergoing reconnaissance mission to London – you know, the one on which he would see 22 shows in 15 days. One year, however, his plane was late returning to Boston. He got in at 2 a.m., the T was closed, and he had to take a cab. I can still hear the shudder in his voice as he reiterated: “FORTY DOLLARS.” He just kept saying it: “FORTY DOLLARS.”
But though it’s fun to joke about his frugality, Caldwell was as generous as he was gentlemanly to his friends. The Yankee thrift applied only to himself – books exempted (the man had more books than the Bodleian Library). And the end result of his skimping on cabs and packing his briefcase with both lunch and dinner sandwiches before heading out to the yearly Boston Theater Marathon was revealed to me, also in Gloucester, a couple of summers ago. Gloucester Stage publicist Heidi Dallin, who also went to Harvard (though somewhat later than Caldwell), pulled me aside to show me an article in the alumnae magazine reporting that Caldwell had endowed a chair in the university’s African-American Studies department!
I had never known anyone who had done any such thing, and I was mightily impressed. Yet what could be a more admirable or suitable legacy for Caldwell? It speaks to his longtime interest in African-American arts and culture, it speaks to his adamant Harvardian-ness, and, most of all, it speaks to his reverence for teaching and learning. I was never his student, but I learned a lot from him. He was such a font of knowledge – and a stickler too. Once, when I referred in a theater review to a character’s being in a prone position, he sent a letter to the editor pointing out that the individual was in fact in a supine position. I will miss having him around to keep me on my toes. I will miss having him around, period.
In closing, since Caldwell and my mutual friend, Elliot Norton, is no longer with us either, I would like to report that every time Caldwell’s name came up between us in conversation, Elliot would nod thoughtfully and say: “Mmm. I admire a man who can carry off a beret.”
It is with enormous sadness that I write that Caldwell Titcomb, a great friend of Boston theater and music, a dear friend of mine and of The Arts Fuse, passed away yesterday (Sunday, June 12th) of leukemia at the age of 84. He had been in ill health for many months, though in keeping with his deep professionalism he posted the Classical Sampler for The Fuse until December, 2010.
He contributed to The Arts Fuse from the beginning of its publication. Those who would like to read his reviews and commentaries on music and theater should go here.
He was a gracious and generous man, an eminently reasonable critic, encyclopedic in knowledge and passionate in his commitment to the arts, grammar, and his friends. Caldwell was one-of-a-kind—he is absolutely irreplaceable.
I am in shock so I will write more about Caldwell later—he was a fixture at Boston theaters (as well as at classical music concerts), one of the formidable critics who befriended me and taught me the ropes when I started up as a stage reviewer in the early 1980’s.
— Bill Marx
If anyone would like to contribute a memory of Caldwell, please sent it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will include it on this page. Thanks
It’s so shocking when a teacher or mentor who was close to you dies; even though you may have anticipated the death. My condolences to you and everyone else who knew him.
Condolences, Bill – and to all who knew him.
He was one of my teachers at Brandeis. I learned a lot from him. He’ll be missed.
Caldwell was a great man. He was such a gentleman and so averse to self-promotion that only a few know what an important and influential presence he was. Thank you Bill for paying tribute to him.
Thank you for the beautiful remembrance of our dear friend,Caldwell. We will miss him.
A lovely tribute to a man who loved words and knew the power of rapt attention — eulogies being a kind of theater, after all. Given your poignant reminiscence of Caldwell, Skip Ascheim and Arthur Friedman, it’s shocking to realize they’re all gone now. So Bill, ya gotta hold down the fort as well as encourage the young whippersnappers coming up behind us.
Thanks for your lovely eulogy, BIll. I always liked seeing Caldwell in the lobby of the theater, and was sorry to see that he had passed away. 84 and still seeing shows sounds like a good way to go, may we all be so lucky
I remain astonished that Caldwell Titcomb, whom I knew since encountering him in the offices of the Harvard Crimson in late 1971, seems to have showered not just me but EVERYONE else with those clippings! For years, honestly, I (an African American political scientist) relied on him to keep me informed of all manner of happenings in the black community, and to know (or be able quickly to find out, in the years before Google) anything and everything having to do with black history. (And was a performance of Shakespeare ever staged of which he was unaware?) I still retain a trove of those clips, along with the unfailingly precise notes that usually accompanied them.