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Thank you, Elliott! Love, 50 years of grateful theater kids

CLOSEThank you, Elliott! Love, 50 years of grateful theater kids

Check out the neon lights of Broadway after dark. Ilana Keller/Wochit

About 15 years back we were prepping for another season of children’s theater, organizing and transporting costumes, props and set pieces from our warehouse to the theater.

I came across a 2X4 in a pile of the kind of theater odds and ends that seem to just multiply every time you turn your back.

The wood was badly warped, not stable enough to support a flat or be built with. I tossed it in the dumpster out front and went on sorting and carrying boxes.

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When we unloaded a truck at our second storage site, lo and behold, there was the 2X4. Figuring it got mixed in with our supplies somehow, I tossed it again.

We arrived at the theater later that afternoon. As we unloaded the truck, wouldn’t you know, that 2X4 was nestled in among the boxes.

Turns out, it had been salvaged by our director, Elliott Taubenslag. Twice. (And I would bet he was the one who stowed it away in the first place.)

The more I thought about the day, the more I realized it symbolized so much about Elliott.

The way he saw the potential in everyone and everything. 

The way he would never give up on anyone.

The resourcefulness, creativity and ingenuity in his approach to theater.  

That stubborn streak when he felt he was right. (Luckily he was right pretty darn often!)

Elliott died on Monday, March 26. He was 88. And he spent more than 50 of those years coaching, educating, mentoring, supporting and bringing joy to children and young adults.  

As founder of the East Brunswick Children’s Summer Theater, he built and sustained a program for half a century, touching thousands upon thousands of lives.

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But to call it a program falls short. He really built a community: one committed to crafting lifelong loves of theater; committed to nurturing the sense of self for so many kids; and committed to teaching teamwork, communication and the importance of fun.

He also was a longtime teacher in the East Brunswick school system, a writer, a producer and so much more.

Known to generations as Mr. T or Elliott, he was one of the most memorable personalities you could ever hope to come across. And one of the most exuberant.

Some of his sounds can never be duplicated.

“Yippppeeeeeee!” 

You could hear his signature cheer for miles, with or without the amplification of the cardboard megaphone he was fond of carrying around. The sound was the epitome of happiness in every town square from Beggari to Rottingham.

“Crroooooooaaaagggglllllkkk!”

That was his attempt at a rooster crow from off-stage when the assigned kid went MIA during a show.

“Paul. Paul. Paul!”

That was him calling to me (I’m Ilana, by the way) in the lighting booth for the entire summer after Paul moved on.

And speaking of that lighting booth, he clearly saw something in me that I had never seen in myself when he assigned me to shadow his lighting tech.

And shadow I did, and my skills and love for the technical aspects of theater blossomed. I stayed in that booth handling lighting and then sound for the next 15 years.

But perhaps the most memorable thing I ever heard him say was that above all else, he would never let a child fail on stage.

And those weren’t empty words. Time and time again I saw him support, coach and gently push kids toward success.

I’ll never forget the time he crept onstage with his arm around a little boy who had forgotten the words to his song and ran off.

“Let’s start again,” he said. As they started from the top, singing together, Elliott lifted his arm from around the boy’s shoulders and quietly slipped back into the wings. The boy finished his song to thunderous applause from the audience. 

And pushing toward success included knowing when to say goodbye.

He once told me that counselors, some who had been with the program since they were little, would approach him, saying this was their last summer because they got a summer internship or were studying abroad or otherwise moving further into their adult lives. They would say, “Elliott, what are you going to do without me?” That was how important and necessary he made everyone feel.

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He’d tell them that no one was irreplaceable. It wasn’t a brush-off, but rather knowing what he needed to do to make sure people moved forward, taking the lessons he’d taught them into the world.

And so many of those “kids” went on to careers in theater, appearing on Broadway, working in Hollywood and other entertainment avenues. For them, as well as countless others in every field out there, the lessons Elliott taught them served as an invaluable foundation. 

And sure he drove plenty of people crazy. It was all part of his charm.

He had a ton of outside-the-box ideas that, somehow, would just come together and work, after a lot of grumbling from his staff. But there also were those that failed, sometimes spectacularly. It was always a learning experience. 

One of my favorite requests from him was the simple “dark but happy” lighting. 

As he got a little older, he insisted on carrying a wireless microphone with him, easier to be heard over a group of a hundred or so excited kids.

The problem was, the microphone he insisted on using was also about 70 years old (give or take). On my honor, the thing was held together with a sponge and business card in the battery compartment, which made it pretty hard to keep functioning.

Much to the chagrin of many a tween or teen, his antics also included leading groups through the streets of Manhattan with a foil potato chip bag perched atop an umbrella foisted high for all to see on the annual trip to a Broadway show.

And heaven forbid you were caught talking during a quiet moment onstage. “If you like her, take her out after camp and buy her a milkshake,” he’d reprimand. The red of their faces would rival the apple he often ate with his SlimFast, bought “at the gas station” on his way to camp.

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He served as the storyteller for so many Summer Theater shows, often hopping onstage in the middle of the scene when an important line when dropped or when something was forgotten. 

“Princess,” he’d call. “Didn’t you have something to say to Suitor No. 4?”

Sometimes his interludes got to be a bit much. Mysteriously his microphone would cut out, allowing the show to continue.

I can’t count how many words, phrases, songs or shows are ingrained in me from Elliott. The word shirk, “the sun is shining,” “catch them” and so many more trigger memories.  And I’ll never be able to hear “Shall We Dance” without singing the words to “Goodbye Gulch” in my head.

I know there are thousands of others like me, with the ethics, knowledge, drive and spirit derived from Elliott’s influence, spreading his impact in immeasurable ways. 

Thank you, Elliott.

“And now the time has come, when we must say goodbye…”   

Ilana Keller: 732-643-4260; ikeller@gannettnj.com; Twitter: @ilanakeller

CLOSEThank you, Elliott! Love, 50 years of grateful theater kids

BroadwayCon 2018 was three days of stars, performances, cosplay, panels, reunions, friendship and FUN! Ilana Keller/Wochit Wochit

 

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