Arts & Theater

Bob Irvin: artist in theater and life

Bob Irvin, right, portrayed Allen Ginsberg in the River Stage production of “The Chicago Eight Conspiracy Trial.”
Bob Irvin, right, portrayed Allen Ginsberg in the River Stage production of “The Chicago Eight Conspiracy Trial.” River Stage

Bob Irvin was an acclaimed renaissance man of local theater, the heart and soul of a generation of local theater-makers.

Irvin was an actor, director, writer and instructor at American River College for 31 years, but he is most remembered for mentoring and inspiring anyone who came within his expansive sphere. Irvin, who died Sept. 15 at 67 in Sacramento, will be remembered Saturday in a final “Wrap Party” at the Fair Oaks Theatre Amphitheatre.

Irvin was involved in local theater as an actor and director more than 45 years, working on hundreds of productions in the golden era of Sacramento community theater. During that time, he served as artistic director for the Old Eagle Theatre, Garbeau’s Dinner Theatre, the Nevada Theatre and, for the past 21 years, the Fair Oaks Theatre Festival. His work inspired former Bee theater critic Alfred Kay to write, “Bob Irvin has done everything there is to do in the theatre except shoot Abraham Lincoln.”

Actress Analise Langford met Irvin in 1995 when she landed the part of Wendy in a production of “Peter Pan” at American River College, which Irvin directed and in which he played Captain Hook. They became friends for life, as did most of the people Irvin pulled into his circle. That was his gift.

“He always saw the best in you,” Langford said. “He believed in you far more than you believed in yourself.”

Another longtime friend, Jennifer Longo, met Irvin in 1991 when he taught her first theater class at American River College. She was 19.

“I had no self-esteem and thought I was terrible. He let me know he thought I was wonderful and put me in every show he did,” Longo said. She became an adopted daughter to Irvin and his partner of 28 years, Joe Hart. Irvin and Hart were married for the last eight.

“While a lot of people’s connection with Bob began with theater, that was just how we met him. Then we became this other thing, this family,” Longo said. Part of Irvin’s “family” duties including officiating weddings, walking people down the aisle and throwing baby showers. He and Hart “never had a Saturday free,” Longo said.

“Bob became a central figure in so many people’s lives, and I don’t know how he had the time for it, but he always made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the room,” Longo said.

A major part of Irvin’s theater career came as a playwright. He adapted “Puss ’N’ Boots,” “Dracula,” Moliere’s “The Would Be Gentleman” and “Eight By Tenn/ Tennessee Williams’ Honky Tonk Parade” a stage adaptation of eight of Tennessee Williams’ short stories.

Irvin’s original works include “Ladies of Burlesque” about performers of the 1930s with period music, which played the Old Eagle Theatre and then at the Chautauqua Playhouse with original music; “Burnt Cork” about the life of black vaudevillian Bert Williams, in a production starring James Wheatley; “Before Amelia” about Bessie Coleman, the first licensed black female pilot in America; and “ ’Neath California Skies,” about a public lynching in San Jose in the 1930s.

“He was very proud of “ ’Neath California Skies,” Hart said. “He felt very honored when (KVIE) Channel Six picked that up to do as a teleplay. They had a big premiere of it at the Crest; it was very cool.”

Former River Stage director Frank Condon cast Irvin in the pivotal role of Allen Ginsberg in the “Chicago Eight Conspiracy Trial” production at River Stage. Condon then asked Irvin to arrange musically and direct the production of “Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin (with Exception and the Rule).”

“The most striking thing to me was his affinity with the dark underside in the songs,” Condon said.

Hart said Irvin had an absolute love for theater.

“He said he got into theater because he couldn’t do anything else,” Hart said. “It had that pull on him, and he just had to. It was part of his being to do it.”

“Bob Irvin’s Wrap Party,” hosted by the Fair Oaks Theatre Festival, will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at the festival, 7991 California Ave., Fair Oaks. For more information, go to www.fairoakstheatrefestival.com. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in his memory to the Fair Oaks Theatre Festival.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

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