Now Cracks a Noble Heart
by Anthony Chase
Fred Keller dead at 92
Fred Keller was larger than life. That’s why, even though the man was almost 93 years old, I was startled when I opened the Buffalo News last week and saw his obituary. I’d never really thought about Fred dying! It was a handsome and expansive tribute, worthy of a great man, full of the particulars of Fred’s impressive accomplishments in theater, in education, in television, in film. There were little details that I hadn’t known and reminders of things I’d forgotten—like the fact that while Fred was living in Paris he’d dubbed a few hundred films into English, or that he produced the very first educational programs for children seen on local television in Buffalo. The obituary was followed by a splendid and moving homage by Jeff Simon.
Everybody who ever knew Fred had stories about him.
Years ago, the late attorney, Howard Berman, a global authority on laws pertaining to indigenous people, told me stories of how a generation of Buffalonians owed any knowledge they had of European cinema to Frederick Keller, who used his knowledge to program films into the Circle Art and Glen Art theaters, where he also maintained gallery space.
On the other hand, Blossom Cohan often spoke of being lured all the way out to Grand Island by Fred in the early 1960s to appear in a production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit—only to discover that he’d cast her in the minor role of the woman who buys milk! “I took that to be his appraisal of my talent,” said Blossom, dryly.
Great Buffalo actress Mary Loftus recalls getting a backstage visit from Keller who complimented her performance by saying, “Mary, you’re turning into quite a little actress!” to which Loftus, already in late middle age, responded, “Well, Fred, when I’ve turned, you be sure to let me know!”
The fact is, between all of the details of his remarkable life and impressive accomplishments, Fred Keller was a vibrant and sometimes irascible personality who could be alternately big-hearted and hyper-critical, petty and magnanimous. In fact, if Reader’s Digest called on me to describe “The Most Vivid Personality I Ever Met,” the sort of occasion that calls on the Patrick Dennis in all of us to evoke Auntie Mame, I have to say, Fred Keller would certainly make the short list of nominees. Fred was a phenomenon.
A year or two ago, out of the blue, I got a telephone call from Fred, who had, for several years, been living near his son and daughter-in-law in Southern California. He had written a book and he was sending me a copy. Spearing the Wild Blue Boar is Fred at his best: energetic, passionate, opinionated—and right. In 250 pages, he debunks every theory that would have us believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. I reviewed the book and enthusiastically recommended it as a Christmas gift to Artvoice readers last year. And though Fred “asked” me to review it, I didn’t really think of the task as optional. Such was the power of his personality.
I first met Fred at People Art on Lexington Avenue in 1981, where he staged a production of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago with acting students. He would certainly become a part of my world in the years that followed.
Actress Christina Rausa, who worked with Fred for seven years at the Café Theatre in Snyder recalls Fred with warmth.
“He was a pioneer,” Rausa says. “When he was a young man, they called him the Orson Welles of Buffalo! From the very beginning, he was a success at everything he did. He used to tell a story about how when he was still in his 20s, Jane Keeler, co-founder of Studio Theatre, asked him to audition to play Macbeth. He memorized his audition piece from the play, but the night before he became so anxious that he smoked—all night. By the next day when it was time to read for Miss Keeler, he had lost his voice. She cast him anyway!”
Rausa concedes that Keller deserved his reputation for being difficult at times.
“Believe me, I know!” says Rausa with a laugh. “I worked closely with Fred for seven years and knew him well. Fred did not like to make mistakes and he didn’t like to be wrong—and if you asked him, he never was! That was the difficult part of Fred. But that’s not all there was.
“One time, about 20 years ago, I was rehearsing for the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre production of The Dresser that Bob Waterhouse directed. Fred played Sir. Betty Lutes DeMunn was in it too, and one night, Fred drove Betty and me home. He dropped Betty off first, and when we arrived at her fashionable apartment building, Fred got out of the car to open her door, and walk her to the building. Well, as they alighted onto the sidewalk, a drunken middle-aged man, a panhandler, confronted them. I could see Betty brace herself for this confrontation, as the man asked Fred for money. To my surprise, Fred took out his wallet, gave the man a few bills and then hugged him! It struck me as such an unexpected and beautiful gesture. Fred has such compassion for this stranger in need, so incapable of helping himself.”
On another occasion, Rausa remembers Keller reacting to a panhandler much differently.
“We were leaving the Café Theatre [in Snyder], getting into our cars, and a younger man, a street person came up to us as we were getting into our cars. He told us the usual panhandler story, ‘I live in Hamburg; I just need $3.50 to get home; my mother this; my sister that.’
“Well, Fred cut him off and said, ‘Look, young man, I’m going to give you a dollar, and I’m also going to give you some advice. He reached into his pocket and gave the guy a dollar, and then he said, ‘Okay, now the advice. You’ve got to work on your story! That yarn about needing $3.50 to get to Hamburg and your sister being ill is just not convincing. Trust me—I’m an actor and a director, and I know how to tell a believable story!’
“Fred then instructed this guy on what to say next time he was begging for money!
“Fred had an opinion on everything. It’s not that he felt he was superior; he didn’t. It’s just that he admired educated views, and he felt others would also benefit from education. He was always buying and reading books on acting, for instance.
“When you were working with Fred,” Rausa continues, “he was always pushing you to the wall and urging you to think outside the box. At times he could be domineering, and it can be difficult to have a partnership with someone like that, but at the same time, he always had time for you, and he always listened. He taught a lot of people a lot of things. I know he taught me a lot of things. He made me a better actress.”
Lorna C. Hill, founder of Ujima Theater Company, appeared opposite Keller in the 1987 film, My Dark Lady, directed by Keller’s son, Frederick King Keller. In the film, Fred played a washed-up classical actor working as Santa Claus in a department store where he gets caught shoplifting. On the run from the law, he hides out in a boardinghouse run by Lorna Hill’s character. He helps her transform her house into a thriving business, coaches her son as an actor, and helps rescue the boy from the persecution of the pompous headmaster of the snooty private school he attends. The title of the film, scripted by Keller, is a play on My Fair Lady with allusions to Shakespeare’s dark lady, and to the fact that Hill’s character was African American.
“Fred felt that he had a lot to teach me,” confirms Hill. “About life, about acting, and about being African American!”
“I felt that I might have a few things to teach him about those subjects too! Fred tended to start from the assumption that he knew more than other people—on every subject!”
From panhandling to being African American, there seems to be truth to the observation!
“Fred had his own charm,” adds Hill. “I liked him very much. That being said, Fred could be difficult because of the size of his ego, and because he imagined his charm had the same impact on everyone. At the same time, that lack of self-awareness made him very endearing. More than that, you would put up with a lot from Fred, because you always knew it came from a very sincere place. At heart, he was a very good person.”
Frederick King Keller reports that his father died peacefully in his sleep and that the family is planning no fewer than three memorial services. The first will be the official cremation and service at 1pm on Saturday, October 22 at Gates, Kingsley & Gates Moeller Murphy, 1925 Arizona Avenue in Santa Monica (310-395-9988) “A beautiful chapel in Santa Monica,” says the younger Keller, “which we are told even served for Ronald Reagan. We’re sure Dad would be outraged by that, but on the other hand the building looks like it came from Shakespeare’s time and is too perfect a setting for this sad affair.”
A second ceremony will be held at Park LaBrea, the gated community where Fred lived, at 2:30pm on Sunday, November 6. Appropriately, the family also hopes to hold a memorial in Buffalo at date that has not yet been determined.
Fred Keller will be missed—and talked about—for years to come. He was a one-of-a-kind personality who made a permanent and positive imprint on the cultural life of this community.
We might say, “Farewell, Fred! Thou were too dear for our possessing, and like enough thou knew’st thy estimate!” But truly, those who knew him best would say, “Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
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