Life imitates art in troupe leader's tragic demise

A month ago, I came across a sad, somewhat mysterious obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. It told of the death on March 20 of Charles McCue, the former producing artistic director of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. He had been involved with the company since its first season in 1983. The obituary said he had been homeless for five years and died on a sidewalk in the Mission District in San Francisco. He was 51.

I was, of course, struck by the unlikely juxtaposition of someone who had once been a leader of an important theatrical troupe dying homeless on the street. Many of the comments attached to the obituary expressed a similar sentiment.

"How does a creative, dedicated, energetic guy like this die a homeless person?'' read one comment.

"What Shakespearean tragedy,'' read another. "The man who helped bring free Shakespeare to suburbia is left to wander the streets and die like a modern-day Lear. How could this happen?''

What further piqued my curiosity was that there was a Tampa Bay connection to the story. McCue, the obituary said, had been raised in St. Petersburg and went to the University of South Florida. Nobody in the local theater community that I asked remembered him, though USF had a record of his taking theater classes in the early 1980s.

I wrote a note about McCue's death and asked readers to get in touch with me if they knew anything about him. The response was almost overwhelming. I was touched by the depth of emotion in e-mails and phone calls I received from his friends and classmates at Seminole High School.

Charlie McCue was president of his 1976 senior class, member of the Seminole Singers chorus and the drama club, delegate to Boys State, chairman of the Students Rights and Responsibilities Committee. He had a part-time job as a cook at a Howard Johnson on Redington Beach, where his sister, Betty, was the restaurant manager. He was selected to serve as a page in the Florida Senate in 1976.

One old friend provided a Web link that led me to a story in which McCue was profiled in the St. Petersburg Times, featuring a photo of him as a handsome young man.

"I attended Seminole Junior High, Seminole High School and St. Pete Jr. College with Charlie, and he was one of my dearest friends,'' Dianne M. Johns wrote. "He was funny and talented and down-to-earth. I last saw him at our 20-year high school reunion, and he was doing well in his career, and seemed very happy. . . . I am heartbroken that he met with hard times and didn't reach out to any of us from his past. He was an awesome person.''

Kimberly Viverette remembered dating him. "He took me to the Kapok Tree and Steak & Ale for dinner. One night he had just bought Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life cassette and sang to me in his car. To a 16-year-old girl, on a date with a senior that was tall, dark and so much more sophisticated than the other boys, he left such an impression on me.''

Debbie Rahn had warm memories of his singing Green-Eyed Lady in state competitions and Wilkommen from Cabaret with the Seminole Singers. Dave Yopp recalled McCue shaving his head to be in The King and I.

"Charlie was so smart and funny and talented,'' wrote Karen Conkel, who knew him from sixth grade on. "Why oh why was he homeless? Breaks my heart. If we had only known. Thank you, Charlie, for all the laughs and the memories. You live on through us always.''

These remembrances got me thinking about how enduring the ties from high school are, and how unpredictable life can be down the road. That such a popular, accomplished person could have such a downfall seemed shocking, until I talked with his brother-in-law, Greg Angermeier.

"From the outside it must look shocking, but Charlie was an alcoholic, and we think drugs were involved, too,'' he told me. "It's a result of the disease. The disease just takes over.''

Greg and his wife, Betty, McCue's older sister, live near Poinciana in Central Florida, but for eight years they lived in San Francisco. They saw McCue go from being married and owning a house and attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous to relapsing into substance abuse and ending on the streets. He died of unspecified causes, but foul play was not suspected.

"We tried to help Charlie many times, to get him into a treatment program, but he refused,'' Greg Angermeier said. "His addiction got to the point that we couldn't help him anymore.''

About a week after McCue's death, the Angermeiers and the Shakespeare festival held a memorial for him in Golden Gate Park. Almost 100 people gathered in Bunny Meadow, where performances were given by the troupe in its early years. McCue, acting as emcee, would open each show with his trademark greeting, "Good afternoon, San Francisco . . .''

Toby Leavitt, executive director of the festival, who worked with McCue for four years, spoke at the memorial. "Charlie did everything from selling T-shirts to developing our first summer camp program and starting our school tour, to expanding our venues to communities throughout the bay area,'' she told me. "He was an integral part of the history of this company. It was so hard when he began to have issues around his addictions that led to him moving away from the festival.''

When McCue was homeless, Leavitt said, "You could see him around Mission and 16th fairly regularly. Everybody tried to help him, but you can't help someone who will not accept help.''

Naturally, the memorial drew on Shakespeare in readings from Hamlet and The Tempest. "I think that both of those plays speak to the complex nature of mortality,'' Leavitt said.

On the festival's Facebook page, John Loll paid tribute to McCue with a quote from Julius Caesar:

When beggars die there are no comets seen;

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

"Look to the skies, friends. I think I can see Charlie's comet.''

Sharon Herbitter, a Seminole High classmate, posted a blog entry titled "Charlie'':

"I will remember Charlie as a young and talented boy, beautiful, with his whole life in front of him,'' Herbitter wrote. "I feel a great loss, although I don't entirely understand why. Maybe because losing him in this way was such a waste. Just a few months ago a couple of friends were asking about him on Facebook — any of us would have helped him if we'd known he needed it (and if we'd known what to do). My prayer today for all of us is to see ourselves with the eyes of love, to recognize our potential, and to do something to make the world a better place. Charlie did that, even while he struggled with his own personal demons.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Life imitates art in troupe leader's tragic demise 04/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 2:22pm]

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