In memory of George: "West Side Story"'s final act
Published: Monday, April 27, 2009 - 12:39pm
URBANA — Costumes, choreography, makeup. Splashes of color and swells of song. Bright lights.
It was easy to get caught up last month in the emotional tsunami that was "West Side Story," Uni's spring musicial.
It's also easy, however, for the tragedy of a musical to fade away with time.
It is not so simple in real life.
"Where I had to be"
For fine arts teacher Barbara Ridenour, who directed "West Side Story" with music director Rick Murphy, tragedy hit very close to home last summer when her brother George Fulscher was diagnosed with cancer.
After surgery and PET scans in July, he was told that he was cured. In October, however, his oncologist started a series of radiation treatments in case of recurrence or migration.
He began a series of 33 treatments starting in November and ending before Christmas, but the doctors did not eliminate the disease completely from his body. The cancer had metastasized to his liver.
The Fulschers when they were children. Barbara and George are to the right. Gargoyle photo provided by Barbara Ridenour (click to enlarge)
He was hospitalized in early January, and there was talk of sending him to M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston or Stanford University Medical Center. However, his condition deteriorated before he was able to make it to either place.
Ridenour had just begun the intricate process of auditions for the spring musical when she was notified about the severity of her brother's condition.
She cast the leads and left, leaving the rest of the casting up to Murphy and choreographer Kim Alexander. English teacher Steve Rayburn, who would play Officer Krupke, stepped in to help run rehearsals.
"At some moment, I knew if I didn't go see him right away, I might regret it for the rest of my life," Ridenour recalled.
Feb. 4 saw Ridenour and her husband back in California, where her brother resided. On Feb. 6, George passed away. His memorial was held on the 12th.
"I cannot thank everyone here enough for going on without me," she said. "I knew the students and the show would be fine. And I knew my brother would not, so I went where I had to be."
"George the Great"
Family always comes first, no matter the size or distance. Barbara and George grew up together with four other siblings in a little town "just north of the Quad Cities, right on the Mississippi River."
"Our father died when we were pretty young, so we were close with our mother and each other," she said. "As with any family, we fought with each other, but always kept each other's backs, so to speak."
Ridenour fondly remembers George as a proud man. When they were children, she dubbed him "George the Great" when she thought he was acting a tad too arrogant. It stuck, and became a family joke over the years.
Growing up meant moving apart for the family. Siblings married off, started their own families, settled down. George and his wife moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked as the Materials Manager for the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans), but the brothers and sisters still kept in touch.
"A few years ago," recalled Ridenour, "he invited his brother and all of us sisters out to his home. He and his wife, Toni, have a beautiful home, and their pride and joy is their patio and garden. We spent wonderful times there with his family. He was thrilled to be our host."
At the memorial for George, his friends, family, and employees reminisced about how he always watched out for others. He expected high quality work from them, and he was always proud when he got it. To pay homage to George, his team of workers arrived in SamTrans buses with "In memory of George Fulscher" scrolling along the sides and backs.
"With his death, it seems that a big part of who we are as individuals and as a family is gone," Ridenour said. "But he is part of every one of us, and always will be."
It is tradition for the cast to give a "director's gift" after every Uni production, be it musical or play, to show appreciation for the all the work and help the adults give during production. For the 2007 musical, "Anything Goes," the cast signed a sailor's hat.
When senior Sarah Lake-Rayburn, who played Anita in "West Side Story," and her mother heard about George, they knew right away what to do this year.
"Since this was my last show at Uni, I wanted Mrs. Ridenour's gift to convey not only the whole cast's appreciation for her work on this show, but also my own appreciation for everything she's done for me over my five years at Uni," she said.
"It was also a really emotional thing for me," Lake-Rayburn added, noting that she lost her aunt to cancer in 2000. "'WSS' was [my aunt's] favorite musical."
In memory of George, she organized a donation to the American Cancer Society. On a very short notice of one evening, cast and crew members raised and donated $160.
Without informing Ridenour beforehand, Lake-Rayburn made her dedication at the closing performance Saturday night. With tears running down her face, she told the audience that while Maria's brother dies in the musical, Ridenour lost her own brother in the course of the show's making.
"I had written out a really nice speech to say," says Lake-Rayburn, "but when I got out there in front of the audience, with Mrs. Ridenour at the back of the attic, I got too choked up to even say half of what I'd written out. I really think everyone did their best that night for Mrs. Ridenour."
Ridenour and her family were very moved by the tribute to her work and George's life.
"Sarah's announcement was handled very beautifully," she said. "I had been ignoring my emotions for the most part since getting back and getting so involved in the play, but that moment brought many emotions to the surface again. All of us who lose someone close to us need to grieve."
George's wife and their son, Troy, sent a touching e-mail to the cast extolling the gift as a "sweet gesture from some very sweet people."
"That had me in tears once again," said Lake-Rayburn. "I still get choked up just thinking about that show."
"My brother talked of his death and expressed his wish that some research be done on his cancer so that someone else might have a chance at life," said Ridenour. "He would have been as proud of them as I am."