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Carl Kowalkowski's Endgame

Carl Kowalkowski, an uncommonly talented character actor with a quick sardonic wit, a generous spirit, and a gnome-like demeanor, died on November 24 after a heart attack. He was 68 years old.

Born in Buffalo on June 3, 1944, according to his niece, Paula Gainey, Carl grew up in the Black Rock neighborhood, where his parents owned a bakery at the intersection of Amherst and Bush Streets. He graduated from Canisius High School. After attending St. Bonaventure, where he earned a master’s degree in teaching, he relocated to Ohio and taught high school English for a period of time.

According to his niece, the failing health of his mother prompted Carl to return to Buffalo in the 1970s. During this time, he began acting with the original Buffalo Comedy Workshop, performing at the Tralfamadore Café on Main and Fillmore. He’d found his calling.

His status as a unique character of the Elmwood Village derived from his longtime employment at Positively Main Street, the popular gift and card shop located at 773 Elmwood Avenue. The job enabled him to have steady employment, while he pursued acting.

Vincent O’Neill, actor, director, and co-founder of the Irish Classical Theatre Company, recalls meeting Carl soon after his own arrival in Buffalo in the 1980s.

“We were both in Meg Pantera’s production of the Scottish Play, performed in the bomb shelter beneath the downtown library,” recalls O’Neill. “I remember he had a car and so he would pick me up for rehearsal and take me home afterward. At first he would beep the horn when he came for me, but he didn’t like to wait. He was a stickler for time, so he told me, ‘When I come for you, you need to be waiting outside!’ Well, the next time he came for me, I wasn’t outside, so he had to beep, and as I approached the car, he pulled away as if to leave me behind! That was my first awareness of his quirky, dark, and very wry sense of humor.

“It was never mean-spirited. He was delightful, and people just liked him. At times it might be like embracing a hedge-hog, you know, and ending up with prickly spines in places you didn’t expect, but you couldn’t help liking Carl.”

While Carl worked at theaters all over town, O’Neill thinks that he did about 10 shows at the Irish Classical Theatre.

“Every performance was vivid and memorable,” says O’Neill. “There was Playboy of the Western World, and The Plough and the Stars, and the one-man show,The Christian Brothers, and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which we did several times. I remember when we did The Streets of Dublin, we decided that the costumes were just too nice for people living in the slums and that we needed to dirty them up a bit. Carl asked how we proposed to accomplish that. I told him he needed to go out into the alley outside the Calumet and roll around in the mud. So he did!”

Selected Performances by Carl Kowalkowski

Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Torn Space Theatre, 2007

Brian Delaney’s The Cobbler, Irish Classical Theatre, 2005

Brian Friel’s Translations, Irish Classical Theatre 2004

Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace, Kavinoky Theatre, 2003

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Irish Classical Theatre, 2000

Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman, Irish Classical Theatre, 1999

Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, Irish Classical Theatre, 1999

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Kavinoky Theatre, 1998

Ron Blair’s The Christian Brothers, Irish Classical Theatre, 1998

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, Kavinoky Theater, 1998

Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, directed by Brother Augustine Towey, Irish Classical Theatre, several seasons beginning in 1996

Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, Kavinoky Theatre, 1997

Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Irish Classical Theatre, 1996

Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, 1996

Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, Kavinoky Theater, 1996

John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Irish Classical Theatre, 1994

Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, BET, 1994

Dion Boucicault’s The Streets of Dublin, Irish Classical Theatre, 1993

Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, The Cabaret, 1992

Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing, Kavinoky Theatre, 1991

Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You, Studio Arena Theatre, 1989

Sensing a Kodak moment, O’Neill immediately urged someone to take pictures.

“Carl looked up at us watching him down in the mud and said, ‘This reminds me of the good old days, before I went into the theater!’ He was a real character.

“The last show he did with us was Brian Delaney’s The Cobbler in 2005. He played the mortician and he came to the audition dressed for the part. He wore a long coat and waxed his face and his moustache, and put on a vermillion-colored lipstick. He wore skin-tight rubber gloves to give himself that lifeless handshake. He was cast.

“The last show I ever did with Carl was when I directed him as Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at Torn Space. That may well have been the last show he did.”

For Dan Shanahan, artistic director of Torn Space, that last show was his first time meeting Carl. In a story interestingly reminiscent of O’Neill’s “sticker-for-time” tale, Shanahan remembers the actor as a man of exacting standards and extraordinary talent.

“I remember getting a telephone call when I was driving home from New York City, and being told that the show may well be canceled,” says Shanahan. Carl didn’t feel that he had mastered the words. “The show was scheduled to open in a week. Carl stayed with it, and he got the words. In fact, he ‘made’ the words. By that I mean he got inside them; he understood them. I watched his performance many times. It is rare that an actor feels a role created by Beckett in that way, and when it happens that moment becomes spiritual. I wanted to stay there.

“Carl was able to take difficult words like: ‘…babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together, in the dark…Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of…that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life.’”

That might seem like an impossible speech to perform, but Shanahan observes, “Carl gave those words their life.”

Carl was an intensely loyal person who could forge important and enduring relationships. Among his close friends was Marylouise Burke, one of the nation’s foremost character actresses, known today for originating roles in plays like Fuddy Meers, Is He Still Dead?, Kimberly Akimbo, and Wonder of the World.

“I met Carl when we performed together in You Can’t Take It With You at Studio Arena in 1989,” recalls Burke, “and we remained in touch fondly and faithfully through all the intervening years—and almost exclusively by mail, which is real devotion! I envied his insider access to fabulously irreverent greeting cards!”

Burke recalls that the cast of You Can’t Take It With You gravitated to Carl, in part because he was a local who owned a car and knew the lay of the land, but also because of his easy willingness to reach out to others.

“He was a truly generous Buffalo ambassador for those of us from out of town. He made sure we got the right wings and Polish eats and overview of the neighborhoods, and a ride on that rollercoaster that seemed to zoom over the water.”

Burke recalls seeing Carl from time to time when he came to New York to attend trade shows as part of his duties for Positively Main Street. It was clear that he was content with the life he’d made in Buffalo. She also recalled that New York-based actors, certain that Carl would work constantly if he relocated to Manhattan, urged him to make the move.

“He was pitch-perfect in our play,” she recalls. “We all had so much respect for him and his work, and I so wish I had seized the day and jumped on a plane and come to see more of his performances over the years, because Carl had an extraordinary gift and I wish I’d gotten me some more of that joy, in addition to the wonderfully vivid Carl of the postcards.”

There never seems to be enough time.

“I saw him last week at a performance up at UB,” says O’Neill. “As always, he had that quick wit and sardonic cynicism. He took apart the entire theater season in all of 90 seconds! It was impossible not to be fond of him. We’ll miss him.”

A memorial service for Carl Kowalkowski will be held this Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 4pm at St. John’s-Grace Episcopal Church, 51 Colonial Circle in Buffalo.