“It’s not a huge evening, ” says A. Cornelius Baker of “A Celebration of Life, ” the Whitman-Walker Clinic’s eleventh annual Spring gala. “It’s not a lot of dashing about here and there. It’s a very, very elegant, very sophisticated evening that is joyous but also remindful of the work that we still have ahead of us to do. ”
Baker, Executive Director of the Clinic, is especially thrilled about this year’s event, which will feature performances by three bona fide legends of stage, film and television — Bea Arthur, Dixie Carter and Elaine Stritch. “It was one of those occasions where they let me have some input on the choices, ” laughs Baker, a gay man who has been living with HIV since the mid-eighties. Ever the gracious diplomat, he won’t pick a favorite when pressed, but he will admit that he’s looking forward to hearing Stritch sing the Sondheim classic “I’m Still Here ” from the show Follies. “It’s one of those resonant moments in the theatre, ” says Baker. “But for those of us who have lived through the HIV epidemic for the past decade, it’s an anthem in itself. ”
Stritch, for her part, says she’s not yet sure what she’ll sing in her allotted time, but she notes in a raspy voice both warm and direct, “I’ll do what I’m told. Which is rare for me. But when it involves AIDS, I do what I’m told. ”
Stritch, a Broadway and film mainstay whose HBO special, Elaine Stritch at Liberty: On Stage and Off premieres on the cable network May 29, is dedicated to the cause of AIDS, a cause that impacted her personally and profoundly.
“Aside from falling in love with him, when I got over that illusion, I became a very close friend of Rock Hudson’s, ” she recalls. “I guess you’d say it affected me the first time, the shock of seeing him just waste away from this horrible disease. It was just a nightmare. I was killed, and my heart was broken. Because he was such a wonderful guy.
“Not to mention, ” she continues, “the unbelievable amount of young men in the theatre that were close to me that I knew and that I worked with and were just dropping like flies during that early period in New York. Remember? When it was really hitting hard, before any of the drugs came out? ”
Photo by Todd Franson
Adds Dixie Carter by phone from New York, where she’s appearing in Thoroughly Modern Millie: “We all have memories of wonderful beloved friends who aren’t with us anymore. John West, a gorgeous young man, who started my cabaret career — he’s gone now. ” Her voice trails off as she stops to collect herself.
Through her work in Designing Women, Carter developed a special bond with the gay community. “I feel like I have enjoyed a friendship and a lasting loyalty from the gay community, ” she says. “And when I can, I try to reciprocate that friendship. ”
Of the coming gala, Carter beams, “I get to be on the stage with two absolute icons — and I’m thrilled. I don’t quite put myself in their category. ”
“These special events are more than fundraisers for us, ” says the Clinic’s Baker. “They’re affirmations of the work that the Clinic does. And it’s a way for people to move that work forward and join together for the evening to affirm their own commitment to that work and be a part of it. ”
And that work does make a difference.
“You have to take your hat off to the medical profession for keeping thousands of people alive, ” says Stritch. “I know so many people who are living with AIDS. And in pretty good shape. But we can’t let it become a memory. We don’t want it ever to get like yesterday’s news, do we? And that’s the problem: once a few big, big celebrities die, everybody seems to forget about it. So we want to keep it all alive. It’s just as pertinent today as it was twenty years ago. ”
“Things are happening, and because of the kinds of efforts that are being made here in Washington, there’s a turnaround going on, ” says Carter. “The plague isn’t conquered, but we see that there’s hope. ”
A Celebration of Life will take place on Wednesday, May 26th, at the Mayflower Hotel, 1127 Connecticut Avenue NW, and will include a dinner, performance and reception. Tickets are $500 and up and space is extremely limited. Call 202-797-3545 or visit www.wwc.org for more info.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!