Most of America knew the great director, writer, actor and impresario Isaiah Sheffer through his deep lullaby of a voice, the one that guided them through his popular weekly syndicated radio show, “Selected Shorts.” But a bittersweet reminder of the many other gifts and achievements of the multitalented stage veteran was provided at the December 17 memorial service held in his honor on Manhattan’s Upper West Side at Symphony Space, the cultural center that, along with “Selected Shorts,” may prove to be his greatest legacy.
Perhaps “legacy” is too sterile a word to describe the impact that Sheffer, who passed away on November 9 at Mr. Sinai Hospital at the age of 76, had on his seemingly inexhaustible supply of friends, admirers and collaborators.
At the memorial service, it seemed as though everyone in the packed 760-seat Peter Jay Sharp Theater had a fond memory to share. The atmosphere was one of warm love, not cool appreciation, one so full of gut laughs and raucous applause that one almost expected Sheffer, like the Finnegan of his beloved James Joyce, to pop up and demand that celebrants pipe down.
The stories were as varied and multi-tiered as the man — a Bronx-born, Stuyvesant High School graduate who first took the stage as a child actor in Yiddish theater and then never left it, whether as an actor, a librettist and lyricist for musicals such as “The Rise of David Levinsky,” a commentator on public radio station WNYC or a host on the Jewish Daily Forward radio station WEVD (“the station that speaks your language”).
But all the reminiscences shared an appreciation for the man’s sense of humor, and almost every person who took the stage over the three-hour event (“We’re running long,” Symphony Space director of literary programs Kathy Minton joked at about the two-thirds mark, though it should be noted that almost no one left early) offered a favorite Sheffer line — for example, one he liked to repeat during his lengthy hospital stay: “I tell people I’ve had a stork,” he’d quip, “but it hasn’t affected my speech.”
Some of the evening’s biggest laughs were elicited when veterans of his long-running musical revue, “The Thalia Follies,” took to the stage to perform Sheffer’s own politically pointed song parodies, along with video clips.