Remembering Our Friend and Board Member, Jerry Stiller

During the past few months, our team at A.R.T./New York has drawn strength from the love and support that our members, staff, patrons, and board members provide for one another. We are so grateful for the community that we have, and our hearts break when we learn that one of our friends is no longer with us.

You may have seen that Jerry Stiller—comedy legend and star of stage and screen—recently passed away. Over the Memorial Day weekend, our Executive Director found a quiet moment to remember her friend and supporter, and we would like to share with you her reflection on a man whose contribution to non-profit theatre expanded well beyond his efforts as an A.R.T./New York Board Member.  

Our thanks to Jerry Stiller and his dear wife, Anne Meara. May their memory be cherished for generations to come.

I first met Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara on Memorial Day, 38 years ago. They had kindly agreed to attend a cultivation event for the now defunct Hartman Theatre in Stamford, CT.  A lovely board member and his wife hosted cocktails in their Greenwich, CT home, and as the Hartman’s PR and Marketing Director, I was asked to “get some press” to cover the event.  

While many of you knew him as Ben Stiller’s father and Jerry as Frank Costanza from Seinfeld, in 1982 everyone at the party knew the couple as Stiller and Meara, the comedy duo who mined material from their interfaith marriage (he was Jewish and she was Irish Catholic).  

They immediately lit up the room, telling stories about their comedy act and the theater. I remember Anne making everyone laugh by saying, “If you’re up in your attic painting a picture: they call you an artist. If you are up in your attic, practicing a monologue: they send you to Bellevue! To make theater you need an audience!”  

The following day, the front page of the Greenwich Times proclaimed, “Stiller & Meara Visit Greenwich” complete with large photo of Jerry, Anne, our board member, and his wife. (I have no idea if we raised any money, but our board member could not have been happier!) A few weeks later, I had an idea: What if our subscription brochure showed a photo of Jerry and Anne, discussing the Top 10 Reasons to Subscribe to the Hartman? Ed Sherin, the Artistic Director, liked the idea and offered to reach out. A few days later, Ed called me, “They want you to write the copy and if they like it, it’s a go.” I could not believe it. “They want me to write the routine?” I asked. “Yeah, draft the Top 10 Reasons, and we’ll send it to them.” I drafted copy and it was approved.

By the time the brochure went out, I had left the Hartman for a job at the Manhattan Theatre Club as their Director of Marketing and PR. That spring, the producers of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly rented MTC’s studios to rehearse. The play was directed by Mike Nichols and featured Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Judith Ivey, Cynthia Nixon, and Jerry Stiller. One afternoon, I saw Jerry in the hallway and reintroduced myself. The next day, MTC’s receptionist buzzed me, “I have Jerry Stiller here to see you.” Sure enough, there he was, greeting me as Miss Louloudes and asking if he could use my phone to check his “service." For the rest of the rehearsal period, Jerry would stop by to use my phone. It took a while for me to get him to call me “Ginny."

Fast forward to the early 1990’s when A.R.T./New York produced an annual Off Broadway Visibility Campaign. Jerry and Anne became our go-to celebrities. They made a radio and television commercial for the campaign; Anne hosted an event for us and they both attended a funder thank you luncheon where Anne made everyone laugh with her quick one-liners. Their generosity continued after Jerry landed Seinfeld. I will never forget when Jerry agreed to accompany Kitty Carlisle Hart, Celeste Holm, and Tony Randall to Albany on a small plane. When he entered the hearing of the State Assembly, he made the members laugh while chiding them for daring to cut the NYSCA budget, calling it “A Shonda!” Thus began a long and lasting friendship with NY State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who generously supported Capital Funding for the LuEsther T. Mertz South Oxford Space, [email protected], and the A.R.T./New York Theatres.

A few years ago, Jerry was kind enough to offer up “Lunch with Jerry Stiller” as an item in our CharityBuzz Silent Auction. The item was our most successful and the winner was a fan from Dubai who specifically flew to NYC to dine with Jerry.  Once the date was set, I called Jerry’s devoted team members, Jodi and Dawn, to make the arrangements. The winner wanted Jerry to choose the restaurant. I can hear still Jerry’s voice in the background telling Dawn he wanted to dine at Pita Palace to which Dawn replied, “Jerry, the guy paid a lot of money; you cannot take him to Pita Palace.” Jerry conceded and suggested Shun Lee West. When Jerry, Dawn, and I walked into the restaurant, the restaurant’s host called out, “Mr. Stiller, What’s in Your Wallet?” recalling Jerry’s famous Capital One commercial.

Sitting there was an elegant man who smiled and stood to greet us. After the introductions Jerry very sweetly said to him, “Thank you for making such a generous donation to A.R.T./New York. I have to ask you, why are you so interested in meeting me?” During our lunch, our host explained that when he served in the Iraqi Army, watching episodes of Seinfeld became a valued source of relief from the fighting around him. This heartfelt explanation of the power of human comedy to transcend cultures moved us all. Our host then presented Jerry with a lovely gift: a pen! As Jerry was about to reciprocate with a gift of his own (his book) he paused: “I have this book for you, but I didn’t expect you to present me with a gift, let alone a gift as nice as this pen. Would you give me a few minutes to write something special to you?”

Throughout my career, I have worked with many actors and Jerry is one of the very few I can honestly call my friend. And as I read the beautiful obituary in the New York Times, I smiled, recalling something he told me about his plane ride to Albany, years before. “I hate flying…and I kept thinking, if this plane crashes, who is going to get the biggest obit in Variety: Tony Randall, Celeste Holm, Kitty? Not me…” He needn’t have worried!

Farewell my friend!

Ginny Louloudes
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