Who: Warren Hellman
Where: Il Fornaio
Warren was just a guy in a rumpled suit.
He didn’t jump out at you with his power and influence, he kind of shambled into your heart. Oh yes, he was a warrior, a dreamer, a schemer, an entrepreneur, a champion for the common good and a huge fan of good old entertainment. But he revealed himself over time, like any great work of art.
Every few months Warren would meet with one or the other of us. He’d be waiting, The San Francisco Chronicle or The Bay Citizen section in hand, rise up slowly and with arms outstretched warmly embrace us and sit down to catch up.
Sometimes there was a specific reason for the meeting: a request for information about a special project, an exploration of his latest brainchild or every now and then a pitch to the man himself for support. He never failed to talk about his wife, his kids, his grandkids, his music, his city, the markets, his new friends, his horses, his enemies, the Talmud and artists. That was his baseline. Indeed, the conversations were invariably lively, passionate, opinionated and unpredictable. Just when you thought you knew what he’d say or what he believed, he’d change his mind. You couldn’t predict his point of view, track what he’d embrace, but you always knew he’d listen. Warren was profoundly and genuinely curious about everything!
It is 1994. A new critic has come to town who belittles San Francisco Ballet, rails against ODC, rips into Rinde Eckert…a worrisome turn for the region’s abundant but always fragile performance scene. Warren, an abiding SFB supporter, takes umbrage. We put our heads together. We discuss the possibility of an alternative outlet for dance talk. Within what seemed like a new moon, it is done. The Voice of Dance is in the pipeline. And a new life-shaping friendship.
So it was with Warren time after time. The Bay Citizen, the underground garage; ballot measures dealing with health, education, homelessness; settling prickly political issues, always something for the arts. Always something for my work. I see in my mind’s eye Chris and Warren sitting in the shell that would become the Dance Commons, before the pigeons had been relocated. He had no trouble seeing what was possible. After the building was up and running, he asked me what was the hardest thing to fundraise–the ugly stepsister of grant requests. I said maintenance and he said, “Good, we’ll do a hellman handyman fund.”
But he wasn’t just a problem solver. He was an inventor, an instigator. The more offbeat the idea, the better. Why, he wondered, did his suited friends dismiss the pleasures of the ballet world when they so enthusiastically embraced any sport with a sneaker? Couldn’t they see the profound physical expertise in both? “Let’s prove it,” he said. “We’ll pit athletes against artists, the dancers would surely hold their own, splendid!” He set up a meeting with a retired 49’er who thought the idea was outlandish–it would make fools of us all. Ok. So he set up a meeting with his beloved Cal and the idea got traction. Toe-to-Toe was born. For four years, Cal student athletes and ODC dancers faced off in athletic and imaginative competitions of speed, skill, style and nerve followed by a collaborative choreography for ODC and Cal that knocked it out of the park. Cal student athletes shining on the concert stage and dancers winning the sports competitions 3 out 4 times. A perfect Warren event–everything turned on its head. He made everything work hard, his friends, his family, even his concepts!
1997: I first came to meet Warren (soon after, I would discover we were 3rd cousins), when he launched Voice of Dance and gathered some of us to his offices for the unveiling and our opinion. Later, he asked me if my Company would perform in his barn in Bolinas (ODC as well) for the reception of his best friend’s wedding. “I don’t do weddings,” I said. He laughed. And then, as with all things Warren, I could not say no and with very little persuasion, we were delighted to participate in this unique event. “Turns out you DO do weddings–and Chris and I were so moved,” he said. And from there the love affair was launched. My meetings became more frequent; our friendship deepened. He came to performances if they were before 8pm. He jumped at the chance to help make my work in India and China and at the San Francisco Ballet happen; he was intrigued and excited to hear about my time away as soon as I returned. Recently when I saw him and told him I was going to Israel, he said, “Hot Dog!”
And back to breakfast and the Warren we shared–first coffee and then out came the small speakers from his briefcase. The most current Warren-written song for the Wronglers, (his Bluegrass band) would begin to play as he recited or sang his newest irreverent lyrics! He was SO happy to share this growing, consuming passion. I now had something deeply personal to share with him–life on the road, touring! And his band performed across the U.S., right up till the end.
He shared his delight in the outrageous–cultivated my appetite for learning things about which I knew very little and for his risque jokes. He’d run every morning, maybe shuffle sometimes; he’d ski every weekend; he’d Ride and Tie on off weeks. He demanded no less from others than he did from himself. It was subtle, but it was there. And although he never directly asked one to measure up, I’d always come away from a meeting with the haunting question: am I doing enough to make a difference?
It is a cliche to say that Warren was one of a kind and no one can fill his shoes–but he was and none can. Many of the problems that drew his attention remain–but so does the record of his brilliance, imagination and good humor. In his extraordinarily large life, he produced more results, took on more issues, realized more ideas, solved more problems, engaged more interesting people, wrote more songs, inspired more love and won more arguments than most of us could in several centuries. His absence leaves an enormous void. The lucky thing is– we lived in his realm.
At the last Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, we both made sure to go, having a feeling, it might be his last. We got there early and found the ground covered in wall-to-wall people. Nonetheless, as professional movers, we maneuvered close to the stage where Warren and the Wronglers were to play and asked a man if the piece of tarp he was holding was taken.
“Are you a friend of Warren’s?” he asked.
“Yes,” we said. “And You?”
“Well, I don’t know him but he is the only person in my life that made me feel like it was a good thing to be a working class man. This festival is everything to me and it’s free, so if you know him, you can sit here. He’s my friend.”
He was ours too.
Brenda Way, Artistic Director of ODC Dance, was trained at The School of American Ballet and Ballet Arts in New York City. She founded ODC Dance, the ODC Theater and ODC Dance Commons in San Francisco’s Mission District. She has choreographed some 80 pieces over the last 40 years, holds a PhD in aesthetics and is the mother of four children.
Margaret Jenkins is a choreographer and Artistic Director of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (MJDC) and mentor to many young artists as well as a designer of unique community-based dance projects like Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME). Jenkins began her early training in San Francisco, and after 4 decades, the MJDC has been a part of the cultural fabric of San Francisco, dedicated to the making and touring of new work, international exchange, and
programs that support process, choreographic mentorship and performance opportunities. mjdc.org