Tuesday, February 1, 2011
(Above: Bret and his parents)
Whenever a gifted artist dies before his time, the world is always left wondering what might have been.
What wonders might Mozart have created if he hadn't died at 35? Or Gershwin, who died at 39?
The same is true of Bret Harte.
No, not the 19th Century writer. I'm talking about a young man from Moraga who was destined to become, in the words of his college drama professor, "one of the great theatrical directors of his generation."
Though just in his early 20s, Bret already had won raves for his direction of classics like "Inherit The Wind" and "The Man Who Came To Dinner."
It wasn't only what he did that impressed people, it was the way he did it. As they say in baseball, he made everyone around him better.
After college he worked as a stagehand at Berkeley Rep. His fellow stagehand, Ian Richards, remembers, "He studied all the directors very carefully. Not just what they did right, but also what they did wrong."
"Some directors coddle the actors but treat the stage crew like dirt. I remember Bret saying, 'I'll never do that!'"
And he never did.
But it all came to a tragic end on March 21, 2006, when Bret was killed by a hit-and-run driver on Highway 680 near Concord. He was only 25.
It was a disaster for the theatrical community. But for his parents, Dennis and Juanita Harte, it was the end of the world.
Bret was their only child. They loved him dearly, and he loved them dearly right back. His death left them in utter despair.
Then Ian came up with an idea: How about creating a fellowship for aspiring young directors at Berkeley Rep in Bret's name?
The Berkeley Rep estimated it would take $100,000 to endow a fellowship. So Dennis and Juanita went to work. For the next five years, it was the only thing that kept them going.
They dug deep into their own pockets, even though they are not wealthy people. There were a lot of vacations not taken and home repairs postponed.
And their friends rallied around them. They held bake sales, plant sales, silent auctions, you name it.
It was an uphill battle, but I'm overjoyed to report that they have finally reached the $100,000 goal.
They celebrated last Monday night with a party at Berkeley Rep for their friends and supporters. There were smiles and hugs, and a few tears, too.
Though it's taken until now to fully fund the fellowship, there have been Bret Harte Fellows at Berkeley Rep ever since he died, thanks to the generosity of Berkeley Rep.
All three Bret Harte Fellows - Marisa Wolf, Nina Morita and the current fellow, Jennifer Wills - showed up at the party to celebrate and thank the Hartes.
All three are bubbling with the same passion for the theater that Bret had. I wish he could have known them, and vice-versa.
But the people I'm happiest for are Dennis and Juanita, who are two of the sweetest, kindest people I've ever met. Creating this fellowship was the final thing they could do for their beloved son.
"We just don't want him to be forgotten," Juanita told me Monday night. "That's our biggest nightmare."
Ain't going to happen, Juanita.