– Judy Elkind
On Monday night I was delighted to attend a fantastic benefit concert in San Francisco put on by the Richmond/Ermet Aids Foundation (REAF). It was the 10th Anniversary of “Help is On the Way for the Holidays,” their annual Holiday Gala, and it was without doubt a heartwarming event more than appropriate for this time of year. Not only does the event provide premiere entertainment with talents from Broadway, theater, film, and cabaret, but the profits all go to Bay Area AIDS service agencies. Beyond the talent who came out to perform, and beyond the money raised, simply seeing people come together to support a cause and enjoy the night is the spirit of the holidays.
When I arrived at the Marines Memorial Theater in SF, in Union Square, I entered the small lobby upstairs, outside of where the show would take place. The building was generous enough to provide a theater for the concert free of charge, and this venue was no shabby second rate space. I came by during the middle of rehearsal to have a chance to speak with some of the performers, who ranged from the Broadway and Beyond star Sheryl Lee Ralph, La Toya London of Idol and The Color Purple, jazz/cabaret performer Wesla Whitfield, and America’s Got Talent/cabaret act Shawn Ryan. We set up for interviews in the lobby by a table full of promotional pamphlets, the soon to be open bar, and a small table with a miniature white Christmas tree. While each performer I spoke with had their own sense of the show and conversation, the sentiment was much the same: AIDS is not gone, though many people act as though it’s no longer a problem, and coming out for an event like this is one way to share in awareness and help support those coping with the disease.
La Toya London has been volunteering for REAF events for years, and said with certainty that so long as she lives in the city she’ll continue to lend her voice to the lineup. Sheryl Lee Ralph spoke sincerely about how AIDS struck in the ‘80s, and that while there has been progress made, the fight is by no means over. She specifically wanted to emphasize the sadness in how AIDS is becoming a young persons disease, with many unaware of their realities, and wanted to encourage everyone to be responsible and get tested. I also spoke with Ken Henderson, the Executive Director of REAF and Co-Producer of the foundation’s events. He gave some insight into the founding and personal roots of the organization.
REAF was created by Barbara Richmond and Peggy Ermet, two mothers, who each lost a son to AIDS and wanted to find a way to honor their lives and help others going through the same situation. Ken Henderson, and the other Producer and Board Chair of REAF Joe Seiler, both knew their sons and joined on board to help found REAF. The mission statement: “to produce quality entertainment events, with the proceeds to benefit local AIDS organizations” (reaf.org). The foundation really seems to owe it’s formation to the camaraderie of the entertainment community and efforts of local volunteers.
As for the show itself, every seat in the house was a good one, and most every seat was filled. The set was lightly decorated for the holidays, with a Christmas tree, a star, some lights and a piano, bass and drum set off to the side. The concert opened up with the producers emceeing the event, informing how REAF, since it’s inception, has raised over $2.6 million dollars for 32 charities. They also presented Wesla Whitfield and her husband Mike Greensill, a pianist/arranger, awards for their long time dedication to REAF events. Even though the couple now live in Napa, they still happily travel back to SF when asked to come out. The performances started with a skit by Dakaboom, made up of the musical comedy duo Ben McLain and Paul Peglar. Paula West also performed near the start with a soft rendition of “Let it Snow,” accompanied by a gentle, low bass. Samantha Samuels brought something new with a variation on “The Christmas Song” rewritten about being Jewish during the holidays. Another favorite was a well played “12 Days of Christmas” with Shawn Ryan, except he turned it into a drinking game, humorously flirting, cracking jokes, and flubbing the lyrics, like “7 brides for 7 brothers, 6 milking geese…” and “4 more years of Obama, 3 Jonas Brothers…” I was also impressed to hear David Burnham (Light in the Piazza, Wicked) for the first time as he delivered “Do You Hear What I Hear,” with a gorgeous clear and strong voice. After the conclusion of the performance’s first half, the producers came back out to facilitate a live auction. Among the prizes being offered was an entertainment package for shows and restaurants throughout SF, a dinner or cocktail party catered and organized by a celebrity chef, and a weekend trip to New York, plane fare, hotel room and Broadway tickets included. Many members of the audience had certainly come knowing they’d turn out more money for charity during the auction portion of the event. The first prize sold for $900, two different people won for the dinner party at $2,000 each, and the NY trip went for over $1,000.
Moving into Act II, Amanda King, a jazz cabaret performer, was another delight with the late 50s-60s song “The Secret of Christmas,” starting mellow then picking up in beat, snapping along with the rhythm. Sally Struthers did an entertaining skit, pretending to be a little girl bringing her mother to court for kissing Santa Claus, or as she put it: “I saw tongue, I saw lots of tongue.” Then, one of the highlights of the evening was of course Mary Wilson, an original member of The Supremes, who came out in a glittering navy gown and beautifully sang “Here’s to Life” in the spirit of her 50th anniversary in show business. Ms. Wilson was followed by Sheryl Lee Ralph, who upon taking the stage decked out in gold sequins assured, “Yes darlings, I’ve worked very hard at this fabulousness, and I have done it for all of you.” She then told a story of the highs and lows of her time developing Dreamgirls, for as much of a dream as it was originating a role on Broadway, it was also a time when AIDS began taking lives. More hard-hitting was her next comment, recalling the deaths and “then the silence about it.” On this relevant note, bringing together the spirit of the night and reiterating the need to encourage awareness and support, Sheryl Lee Ralph moved into a hypnotizing performance of “Amazing Grace.” Closing the act, was La Toya London singing “Silent Night.” London really built up as the song went along, ending wonderfully. In simply watching La Toya sing, you could sense she was genuine with her words and her enjoyment in performing, which became contagious. Then for the finale, the whole cast of performers came back on stage to sing “White Christmas,” celebrating the end of a long, but fun and beneficial evening. Though the night was not quite over. Half a block down the street, the Hotel Rex hosted a dessert party with the cast and higher-paying ticket holders. Performers kindly took pictures with fans while everyone meandered around with their drinks and sweet treats.
By the end of the night at “Help Is On The Way For The Holidays,” everyone was in a joyous mood from great entertainment and money well spent toward Positive Resource Center and Sunburst Projects (the two organizations for the night’s proceeds). Again, the Richmond/Ermet Aids Foundation, formed in 1995, has raised over $2.6 million dollars over the years with their holiday gala and other similar events. This was an amazing show, with a huge audience who came out to show their support. As a whole, the night also shows how this season is about giving, some of the ways we can take part in helping others, and building our communities.