BAM Remembers Robin WilliamsKenny Wardell
It was 1978 and the alien Mork had just landed in American living rooms. There was a genuine buzz right from the beginning. This Robin Williams guy was something completely different, and whether you liked him or not, you had to watch him on the Mork and Mindy TV show. But we in the San Francisco Bay Area knew that the guy playing Mork actually lived, in real life, among us. In the mid-1970s, there were regular sightings of the soon-to-be alien at the many comedy clubs that sprang up to support the comedy explosion that had taken over San Francisco and the Bay Area. Comedy was the new San Francisco Sound back then, and Robin Williams was really stirring things up!
He seemed to be everywhere. You’d see Robin riding his bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. He’d be in the lobby of the Miyako Hotel talking to people while waiting for his deep tissue Japanese massage. I first met Robin at the Bay Area Music Awards (fondly known as “the Bammies”) at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium (now the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium). He was real mellow as he walked through the large crowd in the hospitality room. Photographer Pat Johnson, who was the Bammies’ official photographer for many years, said simply, “Robin was a major star, but he was just one of us.” The last time I saw Robin around town was last year at the annual Sausalito Art & Music Festival. I spotted him and his wife Susan strolling around the grounds and told my wife that we shouldn’t bother them. Just then, Robin spotted us and came over to say, “Hey, I know you.”
I have had the distinct pleasure of witnessing Robin Williams in performance many times. One of the first occasions was at a “Save the Cable Cars” benefit in 1981, where he opened for Jefferson Starship at the Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel. Rick Swig (grandson of Ben Swig, the Fairmont’s owner at the time) recalled, “Robin was like a precocious leprechaun. He was a presence from the time of the sound checks and throughout the show, which featured the Jefferson Starship. It was probably the first time that anyone ever heard the word ‘penis’ uttered from any public stage at the Fairmont Hotel, but we raised a lot of money for the cable cars, and it was truly an ‘only in San Francisco’ community event.” For me, the most fun seeing Robin was always at Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park. He had a lot to do with the comedy renaissance in San Francisco, and I had the great luck of being able to photograph Robin at Comedy Day on four occasions.
BAMmagazine.com was at Comedy Day this past Sunday (Sept. 14), and we captured the remembrances of many of the people who knew Robin Williams best. We’re putting together a BAM TV feature of these recollections, and it will be available soon, exclusively at BAMmagazine.com. Click on this trailer for a sample of what is coming when “BAM Remembers Robin Williams.”
“Robin Williams was a first-class guy, a real gentle man in every sense of the word.
Onstage, however, he was as sharp as a razor, and two seconds of space was too long…It was a great honor and privilege to have appeared on the same stage doing improv with him, from back in the early days of Spaghetti Jam at the Spaghetti Factory, to the drop-ins he would do at Cobb’s on Chestnut Street with Femprov, to jamming with him and Ric Overton at the Cobb’s in the Cannery. He was so much fun to play with. I will never forget the joy derived from a scene well done with Robin. Also, as the Producer of Comedy Day, I will never forget the feeling of love and energy that would hit you in the face like a sledge-hammer whenever I introduced him. It was something I will never forget. Comedy Day will never be the same without him.”
“I was one of the few performers who was there at the very beginning with Robin, when he was fresh out of drama school, and bringing his unique style to the Holy City Zoo and the Intersection Theater in North Beach. In fact, we were finalists in the very first Comedy Competition ANYWHERE—The S.F International Comedy Competition of 1976! Robin and I were in first and second place, respectively, going into the final night, when Bill Farley came out of nowhere to take first place…As Bill took the stage for his set, all the lights went out at this funky bar/nightclub called Joe Nobriga’s Showcase on Franklin Street in the old Oasis Motel building. In the total darkness, Bill ad-libbed: ‘OK, when he comes in, let’s all sing Happy Birthday!’ The judges were so impressed, they awarded first place to Bill, and Robin and I finished second and third. Robin was always very gracious and unfailingly attentive and generous with his time to me and all of his fellow comics and friends. We are all obviously thrown for a loss by his passing; but I prefer to rejoice in his massive body of work in so many areas–and the great memories he has left behind for us to remember him by.”
MARGARET CHO (Time, Aug. 25, 2014):
“Robin was very shy and possibly a little embarrassed by his fame. Inside, he was really a comic. He was the first of [our little clan of] San Francisco comedians to become a star, a megastar. So he was a symbol of hope for a lot of us.”
“It was extremely cool to have Robin as a friend. I was guilty of dropping his name to family and friends because I was proud to know him. It’s like when your team wins the World Series and you have bragging rights for the year, but with Robin, it was for a lifetime.
When he won the Oscar, it was like San Francisco won, too. He was ours. We shared him, but he was ours.
The San Francisco comedy scene now has a Before and After. It’s like a phantom limb, where you know something has been removed, but you swear you can still feel it. We will always feel his presence. So when you light a candle for Robin, light one of those trick birthday candles, where you blow out the flame but it always comes back. The memory of Robin Williams is an eternal flame.”
DENNIS EROKAN, Editor-in-Chief, BAMmagazine.com:
“I got to know Robin Williams during the early years, when he was a stand-up comedian in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was the sort of person who would walk up to you, ask you your name, and then ask you a question about yourself. Now, keep in mind, this was radical behavior in the world of stand-up comics. Their usual way of behaving is to walk up to you, start talking about themselves, and then tell jokes. You can see that Robin stood out immediately. It didn’t hurt that when he got up on stage, he tore the house apart with all of the laughter.
So, I had some fun experiences with him back then. Then he landed the lead role in Mork and Mindy and became a national star. One day, I’m at an Oakland A’s game, and I see Robin Williams sitting a few rows away from me. I walk over to him and reintroduce myself, and I ask him if he’d like to appear at the Bay Area Music Awards. The fellow sitting next to him, who turned out to be his agent, jumped up between us and yelled at me. ‘You are talking to the wrong guy!’ he yelled. ‘You should be talking with me, and the answer is NO!’ Sitting quietly next to him, Robin had a sweet smile on his face. He pointed up to his eye, so I’d see him, and winked! That meant he would be there. He participated in the Bammies for many years in the ’80s. The staff who put on the show still talk about what a nice person he was.
One year I got a letter from Robin–this was before email. It was a piece of paper with some seemingly random words handwritten in various sections of the page, with arrows pointing from one word to another. In some parts, there were arrows pointing to a blank space. I had no idea why he sent it to me, so I called him. He told me to look at the blanks, and if I thought of a good word, I should write it there, and send the page back to him. I said I would, and then I asked him what he was going to do with this. His answer was, ‘You’ll see.’ That short and sweet. What I realized a few weeks later, while watching him onstage, was that the page was the outline to his comedy routine that year at the Bammies!”
LEWIS BLACK (Time, Aug. 25, 2014):
“It was like Robin had the most brilliant audience inside his head throwing out suggestions. He would put combinations together that were just crazy. It’s proof again that the good die young and the pricks live forever.”
GARY MARSHALL (People, Aug. 25, 2014):
“I will be forever in awe of his timing, his talent, and his pure and golden creativity. He could make everybody happy but himself.”
STEVEN SPIELBERG (People, Aug. 25, 2014):
“Robin was a lightning storm of comic genius. Our laughter was the thunder that sustained him.”
TOM HANKS (Rolling Stone, Sept. 11, 2014):
“If we never forget how people make us feel, we’ll remember Robin forever. That he’s left us is a tragedy on too many levels, the roots of our sadness too deep, like the causes of his exit. But for the sake of a requiem for a phenomenon, an icon, a generous pal, let’s deal only with this: We’ll never have Robin Williams make us laugh again, right there, on that stage, making us feel so good.”
BILLY CRYSTAL (Rolling Stone, Aug. 11, 2014):
“As genius as he was on stage, Robin Williams was the greatest friend you could ever imagine. Supportive. Protective. Loving. It’s very hard to talk about him in the past because he was so present in all of our lives…For almost 40 years, he was the brightest star in the comedy galaxy…[His] beautiful light will continue to shine on us forever. And the glow will be so bright, it’ll warm your heart. It’ll make your eyes glisten. And you’ll think to yourselves: Robin Williams. What a concept. I spent many happy hours with Robin onstage. The brilliance was astounding. The relentless energy was thrilling. I used to think that if I could just put a saddle on him and stay on for eight seconds, I was going to do okay.”
DICK CAVETT (Time, Aug. 25, 2014):
“Robin, like his idol Jonathan Winters, must have had one of the world’s hardest talents with which to live and still retain personal balance. Sitting next to him on my old PBS show was like sitting in the Macy’s barge next to the fireworks going off. He was at full manic comic frenzy for an hour without letup. I caught his manic energy. It was exhilarating. And, exhausting.”
CHEVY CHASE (Rolling Stone, Aug. 11, 2014):
“Robin and I were great friends, suffering from the same little-known disease: depression. I never could have expected this ending to his life, and to ours with him. God bless him and God bless us all for his life! I cannot believe this. I am overwhelmed with grief. What a wonderful man/boy, and what a tremendous talent in the most important art of any time – comedy! I loved him.”
DANNY DEVITO (Rolling Stone, Aug. 11, 2014):
“So sad to think about this. Hard to speak. Hard to say. Hard to take. All I can think about is what a joy he was to be with. I’m devastated. I’m sending my love to his family and everyone who loved him. My heart is broken by this news.”
BILL MAHER (Time, Aug. 25, 2014):
“Robin was fast and furious, and I think there’s something else that’s behind there that you can’t really quantify or define. You could just tell there was a humanity in Robin Williams.”
JOAN RIVERS (Time, Aug. 25, 2014):
“Robin was one of the great interviews. You’d see him coming down the red carpet and you knew, OK, now we’re gonna have fun. [One time] I had this incredible dress, I think it was Dior, with great big gold feathers on the top, absolutely beautiful. And he came up and did five minutes on looking for eggs in my top, because I looked like a chicken. It was fabulously insane.”