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Letter from the Live Film! (jack smith) Festival

The following is a letter written by Marc Siegel, one of the curators of the LIVE FILM! (jack smith) Festival, which was sent out by the the Festival organizers after Ronald Tavel's death.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dear Friends,

It is with deep sadness and great regret that we write to inform you of the death of Ronald Tavel. We were notified Wednesday afternoon that Ron died on his return trip to Bangkok. The exact cause of death is still unknown to us. We are shocked by this horrible news. Ron is survived by his brother, Harvey, and scores of friends worldwide.

It was certainly clear to all in attendance this past weekend that Ron is of central importance to the LIVE FILM! (jack smith) Festival, to any discussion of Jack Smith’s life and work, to Andy Warhol’s filmmaking, and to the development of ‘60s off-off Broadway theater. Many of us had the great pleasure of working with Ron eight years ago when we invited him to Berlin to develop a performance with us that paid homage to Carmen Miranda and Jack Smith called CHEAP JEWELRY: A Fruitbasket for JS. Excited by this collaboration, Ron spontaneously suggested staging a new production of his seminal screenplay/stage play The Life of Juanita Castro. Juanita Castro was performed once in Berlin in Podewil in May 2001 under Ron’s direction, starring Vaginal Davis as Juanita and Susanne Sachsse as Fidel. Concluding his extended reflection on this production for Theater Heute’s yearbook, Diedrich Diederichsen wrote, “Ronald Tavel was-and is–ahead of his time.” While in Berlin, Matthias Haase and Marc Siegel conducted a lengthy interview with Ron, an excerpt of which was published in German in the book Golden Years. Throughout the interview, Ron talked extensively about his theater career, the emergence of the Theater of Ridiculous out of his work with Warhol, his relationship to Smith and his and Smith’s fascination for Maria Montez. About Smith, Ron said: “I would never mention Maria Montez in public before I met him, because that would seem like talking about a very private thing. It was nobody else’s business. They wouldn’t understand. It was somewhat embarrassing too. In that way, he freed me up.” At the end of his excellent essay about Smith and Montez, “Maria Montez: Anima of an Antediluvian World,” Ron writes:

I was living in New Orleans and trying to rouse a roommate too dissolute to go out on the street and get a job when Penny Arcade called me to tell me that Jack had died. I dropped the phone, and ran away from it, sobbing and jabbering, “No! No! No!”

And I was a kid in Coney Island gathering my courage to conquer a fearful fantasy by getting on the cloud-topped Wonder Wheel, when its loudspeaker, tuned to a radio station, blasted a news bulletin: the death of Maria Montez, she’d drowned in her bath in far-off France. It made no sense. Like every little boy on my block, I was set on growing up to marry her. What would happen now? I couldn’t process the information. I decided to dismiss it. By then no one had spoken about her for a while, anyhow. I boarded a car on the Wheel and it took me up haltingly farther off the ground than I’d ever been in my life. From the windows of the car when it reached its height, the quarter-million people on the beach, the great gray Atlantic beyond them, and the world’s largest amusement park seemed small.

Due to the exhilarating and productive work we had done with Ron, we were thrilled that LIVE FILM! (jack smith) gave us the opportunity to bring him back to Berlin to collaborate on a new project. On Sunday, the day before he died, Anna, Matthias H., Susanne and Marc spent a lovely, long afternoon with him discussing the events of the weekend and his plans for the festival in October. We asked Ron if he would program and introduce one of Maria Montez’s films in the context of the festival. He agreed and said immediately, “You’ll have to screen Siren of Atlantis.” After the intensity of those compact two days, this leisurely, relaxed afternoon together brought the weekend to a delightful close. Ron was at his most charming and we all relished in his talents as a witty raconteur and an experienced gentleman of the theater. He was excited about writing a new play for the festival to pay homage to Jack Smith, one that he was going to call either Que dice? or What did she say? We spent a great deal of time tossing around ideas in HAU 1 (the old Hebbel theater) where the play was to take place in October. Ron was particularly interested in involving a number of people from the festival in the production. We left him that evening, all of us full of excitement and hope about his new play and our future collaboration. 

We remain in shock and saddened by his loss. We realize as well that all of us involved in this LIVE FILM! (jack smith) project have had the great fortune to spend Ron’s last weekend with him, an overstimulating productive weekend of watching Jack Smith’s films in Kino Arsenal and discussing Smith’s work, the work of Ron’s long-time collaborator and friend in things ridiculous, things beautiful.

When we receive information about plans for a memorial service or suggestions for donations or further assistance, we will be in touch. We will also ensure that Ron’s centrality to the LIVE FILM! (jack smith) project is evident in the festival in October in Berlin.


Susanne Sachsse, Marc Siegel, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, Anna Mülter, Nadja Talmi, and Matthias Lilienthal

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