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Good Bye Michael Hake

Good Bye Michael Hake

Michael Hake, an extraordinary musician and vivid theater personality, died on the morning of Thursday, December 3rd. He had been taken to Buffalo General Hospital the night before, after collapsing at Q on Allen Street, a bar popular with theater folk. While Michael had undergone quadruple bypass surgery a few years ago, and had suffered other health issues, including a stroke, his death at the age of 52 still came as a shock. He had quit smoking and seemed to be back on the top of his game.

Just hours earlier, Michael played his final performance in the musical Pageant at MusicalFare in Snyder. He had also served as music director. This lighthearted show is a spoof of televised beauty pageants. It’s a cheerful evening with a serious layer of social commentary beneath the surface, as beauty contestants skewer right wing values by embracing them. Sexism, consumerism, anti-environmentalism, racism, and the superficial overvaluation of physical beauty are all playfully celebrated—by men in drag. Those who knew Michael Hake will realize that a show like this would be a perfect set up for his acerbic and eminently dry sense of humor.

As the company left the stage after the curtain call congratulating themselves for a “Good show!” cast members recall that Michael jokingly exclaimed, “Well, I was excellent!”

Michael was excellent that night. Indeed, he had been in rare form. His wry interactions with the cast were priceless. At one point, when the current “Miss Glamorous” entered to relinquish her crown, having gained about 300 pounds during the year of her reign, Michael improvised Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk,” allowing actor Ben Michael Moran to dart hilariously withering looks in his direction. Michael was a genius at making playful connections to others.

By sheer coincidence, I attended that performance. No one could know that it would be Michael’s last.

Tom Owen, who played Frankie Cavalier, the pageant host, remembers that the show began with the cast singing from behind the closed curtain.

“We would always meet behind the curtain,” says Owen. “Michael Wachowiak [who played Frankie’s nephew Chevy] and Michael [Hake] and I would be on one side, and ‘the girls’ would be on the other. Every night, Michael and I would hug. Michael would go to the piano and I would go stage left to make my announcement. ‘The girls’ would blow us air kisses. As he walked to the piano, Michael would always remind them, ‘Smile, when you sing!’ Not only does smiling open everything up for you to sing, but it lifts your attitude and makes everything brighter and better. Well on that night, Michael did something he had never done before; he said, ‘Remember to smile when you sing,’ but he added, ‘I love you guys!’”

Owen falls silent for a moment.

“Michael could do that to you,” reflects Owen. “He’d come out with those one liners that totally threw you. That was one of the best things about Michael, his ability to cut to the heart of something, often with a quip, or a well-timed remark. Even for this show, one review described my singing as ‘intentionally off-key.’ I was so stung by that. I was singing in an intentionally garish way, but I don’t sing off key. The next night when we arrived at the theater, nobody was saying anything to me; we were all a little quiet. Michael walked right up to me and said, ‘Tom, as your music director, if you were singing off key, I would tell. You were not singing off key. But you always sing way too white!’”

Owen laughs heartily at the recollection.

“I immediately felt better! Michael liked singers who did their homework and came in prepared,” Owen continues. “He loved this little show [Pageant] and this little cast. I had just done She Loves Me at the Kavinoky Theatre with him. I realize that I have known Michael for almost 30 years, and I can’t count the shows I have done with him. There was always great respect on both sides and a great relationship. He loved working.”

Actress Sheila McCarthy, the only actor to win Artie Awards in all four acting categories—leading and supporting, plays and musicals—traces her association with Michael Hake back to the summer of 1988 when they both worked for Upstage, a summer musical theater that performed at the Park School.

“That summer, we did How to Succeed ... and then Berlin to Broadway,” recalls McCarthy. “I met so many people who would subsequently become so important in my theater world and in my life. Randy Kramer was there, and Lisa Ludwig. Brian Harkins, Linda Reitberger [Mixon] who was dating Michael at the time and later married him, and later Kathy Weese who also married Michael. How that man got these incredible women was amazing! Maggie Zindle was there, and Syndi Starr, Ernie Insana, Norm Sham, Jeffry Denman. We were all in shows at Upstage!

“I was considered to be the more mature woman who played the character parts,” recalls McCarthy, “and I was only 37 years old! Now they are catching up to me. Things aren’t the same as they were in those days, and I feel, with the death of Michael, that an era is beginning to fade away.”

McCarthy reinforces a refrain voiced by many singers when they speak of Michael. They craved his approval.

“Michael was instrumental in easing my way as a singer, and as an actor,” she says. “I trusted him. Years later, in 1999, when Randy [Kramer at MusicalFare] asked me to do Wings [a very difficult musical in which McCarthy played a woman who has had a stroke], I told him, that in order to do it I would need Jim Deiotte to teach me the music and Michael Hake as the musical director. I could not have gotten through that show without Michael. After each show I’d avoid his eyes, knowing he might admonish me because I was off on my entrance or some other mistake. The wonderful thing was more often than not he would tell me that I had done a good show. His encouragement meant a great deal to me. I owe Michael Hake a lot for giving me the courage to go out there and sing like I’d never sung before. He did the same thing when I did Assassins for his production company in 1993. I won Arties for both of those shows. I was so happy when they finally got around to giving him a Career Achievement at the Arties last year. He had helped so many of us get those awards—he got two for me—and he deserved one himself.”

Doug Weyand, who directed Pageant, expresses many parallel sentiments. Michael had not worked at MusicalFare for a number of years before his return to do Pageant.

“I wanted as many folks back from the previous versions as possible,” explains Weyand. “It wouldn’t have felt right to use anyone else, so I asked for Michael. He and I had worked on dozens of shows together over the past 30 years, and there’s a shorthand that goes with that. We had a common bond of being able to read each other’s eye rolls very well.”

Like so many others, Weyand valued Michael Hake’s nod of approval.

“I was in the 1993 production of Assassins. There was no audition. He just offered me the role. That was the first time that ever happened to me.”

Michael had struggled with health issues in recent years.

“Following his stroke a few years back,” recalls Joseph Demerly, former managing director of the Kavinoky Theatre, “Michael was devastated that he couldn’t drive. He was devastated that his vision was impaired and that his fingers didn’t work as well as they once did. But he persevered and fought his way back. I asked him to work on projects at The Kavinoky and elsewhere, not because he was a friend but because, even with his sometimes irksome demeanor and stroke-provoked ailments, he was the best in town. People have patted me on the back saying, ‘you hired Michael at a time when nobody else would;’ I simply answered back, saying, ‘Well, I guess I knew better than they did!’

“He used to come over our house for slumber parties.” Demerly laughs at the recollection. “He’d bring a little duffle bag of clothes, hop into my car, and spend a couple of nights with me and Jamie. We’d laugh like there was no tomorrow. He would play my out-of-tune piano and roll his eyes so loudly while doing so. There has never been a time when he wasn’t there to listen to me or to offer me his sage advice. He might give me a bit of sass or sarcasm with it, but I expected that. He knew my secrets, and kept them. That’s a friend!

“When I was asked to present his Career Achievement award at the Arties last year, I was filled with such joy. So was he. It was a scary thing to put words together. What could I possibly say to introduce this man who means so much to me and others? My heart is still filled with love for Michael but is broken knowing that I can’t share it with him anymore.”

Michael Hake was also important to Artvoice. In addition to music directing the Artie Awards for many many years, he worked in our offices from time to time. I received my last text message from Michael at 10:02 on the night he collapsed. “I didn’t know you would be there. Thank you for coming!”

An hour later, actor Eric Rawski called to say that Michael was in the emergency room. When Javier and I arrived at the ER waiting room, Eric was there with director Doug Weyand. So were actors Michael Wachowiak and Michael Seitz. People kept coming. Ginny Scahill arrived. Q closed and owner and staff came over: Mark Curtin with Jessica Buxton and Kevin Crowley. Michael’s sister, Ginny, immediately began to drive up from Pennsylvania.

Michael had always feared that he would die alone. He didn’t. We all wanted to be there for him.

Thank you, Michael, for being there for us. We will miss you forever.

While a more formal service will be planned for the future, there will be a “Remember Hake-eoke” celebration at “Q” on Allen Street this Monday, December 14 at 9pm, commemorating the life of a marvelous artist and great friend.

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