Gay cantor finds welcoming home in straight synagogue

Don Croll left Broadway to find more consistent work as a Jewish cantor, coming out as gay along the way

Croll.Cantor-Don
Don Croll

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Don Croll has learned that his path to becoming a cantor — with an Actor’s Equity card and a Broadway run — was not that unusual. Today Croll is the cantor at Temple Shalom in North Dallas.

After graduating from Ithaca College with a major in theater, Croll was hired as a dancer for the Summer Music Theater in Charlotte, N.C. There, he earned his Equity card and next was hired by Fran and Barry Weissler for their National Theater Company.

At the time, it was one of the best children’s theater companies in the country, Croll said, adding that the Weisslers have since become what Croll calls “the revival king and queen.” Their production of Chicago has been running on Broadway since 1996.

“They liked me very much and would have used me one day,” Croll said. He said he ran into the couple at Fair Park Music Hall, at the opening of one of their shows, and Barry Weissler told him, “You could have understudied Joel Grey in our revival of Cabaret.”

Croll did make it to Broadway in a 1971 revival of On The Town with Bernadette Peters, Phyllis Newman and a pre-Chorus Line Donna McKechnie. He played the bill poster and the Congacabana master of ceremonies and was part of the singing ensemble.

“The New York Times hated us,” Croll said. Although the show got otherwise decent reviews, it closed after just 71 performances.

Croll also toured with Howard Keel and John Raitt in Man of LaMancha and danced in a production of Fiddler on the Roof. He had begun to establish a solid career — solid but not consistent.

“Then I didn’t work for eight months,” Croll said. “At the time I didn’t realize that wasn’t so terrible.”

But Croll said he hated working temp jobs. He was married at the time and contemplating a family, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be running around the country in national tours. That’s when he decided to become a cantor, the clergy member who sings or chants the service in a synagogue.

In cantorial school Croll met others who had begun their careers on stage, and while he was studying for his career in sacred music, he came out.

“Once I came out, I never looked back,” he said.

After 10 years in New York, Croll accepted a part-time position at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the first LGBT synagogue.

“When I told the head of the American Conference of Cantors, he looked at me and said, ‘Why are you ruining your career? You’ll never work in a mainstream synagogue again.’”

But a mainstream synagogue in Santa Monica hired him after members attended a service at BCC to hear him sing.

While in L.A., Croll resumed his acting career. Ironically, he was cast as a cantor in Reasonable Doubts, an early 1990s TV series that starred Mark Harmon and this year’s Black Tie Dinner speaker Marlee Matlin.

Then in Melissa Gilbert’s thriller Donor, he played a rabbi.

Croll’s partner, Jan Gartenberg, whom he met in Los Angeles, encouraged him to take a full-time job and Croll was hired by a synagogue in Albuquerque. And in 1996, Temple Shalom brought him to Dallas.

After he was hired, Rabbi Kenneth Roseman asked Croll if he’d be moving to Dallas alone. Croll said his partner would be coming and is attending nursing school. Roseman said, “Then we’ll find her an appropriate nursing school.”

Croll said, “she is a he.” Without missing a beat, Roseman replied, “Then we’ll find him an appropriate nursing school.”

Croll said the big question he was asked by Temple Shalom members about Gartenberg was, “Is he Jewish?”

He is — and his brother is the rabbi of a synagogue in Juneau, Alaska.

“I told them, ‘Jan’s more Jewish than I am,’” he said.

At Temple Shalom, Croll said he and Gartenberg are always invited to events as a couple, although, “In the beginning, some people were uncomfortable.”

In fact, a few families left the synagogue, which now has about 800 member households.

But Roseman stood behind Croll and said, “These are the values by which we stand and they shouldn’t be here if those are not their values.”

Early in his Dallas career, Croll was invited to sing at the installation of a new rabbi at Shearith Israel, the largest Conservative synagogue in Dallas. He received one hate letter.

“Every time you get up to sing, I’ll walk out,” he said the congregant wrote.

Croll showed it to the Shearith rabbi who, he said, was mortified and assured Croll he would always be welcome at their synagogue.

Croll said that his tenure at Temple Shalom has been rather noncontroversial.

“In 2003, we [he and Gartenberg] were married at Temple by five rabbis,” he said. Family, friends and lots of Temple members were there to celebrate with them.
Then in 2008, the couple were legally married in Vancouver by a gay rabbi who was new to that Canadian congregation. They were the first gay couple married at that synagogue.

And this year, Croll said, he and Gartenberg will stand together when the temple honors couples celebrating long-term anniversaries: Croll and Gartenberg will observe their 25th anniversary in November.

Croll said he’s spoken to groups a few times about his relationship, and he said parents sometimes have to explain to their children who Gartenberg is.

But after 16 years in Dallas, Croll said he is simply accepted as one of the faces of Judaism in the Metroplex.

He has also been there as a role model for the temple’s youth. One boy that he bar mitzvahed a number of years ago recently stopped by to casually tell Croll that his boyfriend was moving in with him. And Croll thinks that’s healthy and the way it should be.

Through his years in Dallas, Croll has participated in a number of events in the LGBT community. He’s performed a number of times with the Turtle Creek Chorale and has participated with Congregation Beth El Binah.

When the LGBT synagogue hosted a conference, Croll emceed the evening’s entertainment that included Estelle Getty, Roslyn Kind and local favorite Paul Williams. Last year, he represented the Jewish community at the dedication of the Interfaith Peace Chapel at Cathedral of Hope.

Croll said he isn’t at Temple Shalom to make sure things get better. He’s there making sure that everything’s OK from the beginning.

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Beth El Binah plans High Holiday services

Congregation Beth El Binah celebrates the High Holy Days beginning Wednesday, Sept. 28 with an evening service conducted by the congregation’s new rabbi, Steve Fisch, who was hired in June.

Fisch.Rabbi-Steve
Rabbi Steve Fisch

Alan Josephson will perform as the cantorial soloist.

 

“We’re expecting record crowds with our new rabbi,” congregation President Diane Litke said.

“The High Holidays encourage us to reflect on where we have been, where we are and where we can be,” Fisch said. “Services are going to be fun. I’m going to try to bring a spirit of enjoyment to these beautiful days.”

The High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the new year. The holiday is two days long and all Jewish holidays begin at sunset. So Rosh Hashanah runs from sunset on Wednesday, Sept. 28 until sunset on Friday, Sept. 30.

Evening services begin at 8 p.m. at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center and continue with morning services at 10:30 a.m.

On Friday, the congregation will gather at Litke’s house in Richardson for Tashlich service.

The holiday season is a period of asking for forgiveness. Tashlich is performed sometime during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as an act of tossing away sins. Usually bread is torn into small pieces and tossed into a running body of water as prayers are recited.

Beth El Binah traditionally gathers on the second day of Rosh Hashanah for the ritual.

Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, takes place 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. The day begins on Friday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. with Kol Nidre service, a somber chant that will be played on viola by congregation member Dan Sigale, who performs with the Fort Worth Symphony.

Services on Oct. 8 begin at 10:30 a.m. and continue until sunset.

A week later is the eight-day festival of Sukkot, which marks the harvest with a celebration of thanksgiving. That holiday is observed with a meal eaten in a sukkah or booth.

The sukkah represents the small temporary shelters that were built in the fields for eating and sleeping during the harvest and are decorated with fruit and vegetables.

Beth El Binah’s sukkah is built in member Wayne Wilson’s yard in Lake Highlands and seats 50 for a large potluck dinner that will be held Friday, Oct. 14.

Fisch said that after the holidays he is planning to begin a class in basic Judaism.

“The class is for people who want to convert or just learn more about Judaism,” he said.

For more information about attending any service or class, email rabbi@bethelbinah.org.

— David Taffet

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Who’s Tommy?

Tommy
TAP, DOG | Tommy Tune’s new act traces his legendary Broadway career — and it all began in Dallas.

Maybe you think you know gay  stage icon Tommy Tune, but even he’s still learning things about himself

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STEPS IN TIME

Fair Park Music Hall, 901 First Ave. March 15–20. $20–$75. DallasSummerMusicals.org.

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When I get Tommy Tune  on the phone for the first time, I finally get to tell him about my three Tommy encounters: One was on Broadway when he appeared in My One and Only; one was in his one-man show Tommy Tune Tonight! at Fair Park Music Hall; but the first time was in the locker room of the Watergate Hotel where we were both staying. He was changing clothes after a swim. And I confess to him my 30-year secret: That I saw his naked ass.

“How’d it look?” he hoots with an excited cackle. “Great!” I tell him. “Well, you know dancers,” he says with a flirtatious laugh.
This dancer just turned 72 — a number that rather delights Tune: “If you add together 7 and 2, it equals nine. And nine has always been a lucky number for me.”

It has indeed. Tune directed and choreographed the original stage musical Nine, and has won an astonishing nine Tony Awards in four categories over his 50-year stage career — a career that launched, in several ways, here in North Texas.

“I began at the Dallas Summer Musicals,” says the Texas native, whose sister still lives in Fort Worth.“I got my Equity card there. John Rosenfield, who was the king of culture [in Dallas for decades], reviewed my first professional job in Redhead with Taina Elg. In the last paragraph of the review, he wrote: ‘We cannot let this report pass without mentioning Tommy Tune, who handles his incredible long form with grace control and power.’ That was the energy that sent me to New York. I had the courage after that. And I just linked that up.”

Where he links that up is in his new one-man showcase, Steps in Time, which opens Tuesday on the same stage where Tune got his start.

“Everything I do in Steps in Time is the truth,” says Tune. “I’ve done four acts and this one is the most personal and the purest and it works better than the others. It doesn’t have the glitz, but there’s depth.”

It’s also a work in progress. Tune has performed it about 100 times so far, but often in one- or two-night stands; he’ll be in Dallas a week, and the version includes new material he’s only recent added. It also has the added bonus of getting him back to his Texas roots.

“I still like to get my feet in the Texas mud, which is different than all other muds,” he says.

Tune kicks off his show with his arrival in New York on St. Patrick’s Day 1962. His beginnings were auspicious: He auditioned for a show and got the job on the spot. That led to dozens  more shows as an actor (Seesaw, which won him his first Tony), director and choreographer (Grand Hotel, Nine, The Will Rogers Follies). But he’s loathe to choose a favorite experience.

“I’m gonna have to answer the next one will be my favorite,” he says. “Every show I’ve done, I’m not satisfied with. But there is a sense of dissatisfaction that keeps you marching.”

Still, he coos about many of the talents he’s worked with over the years. Raul Julia “was a dream.” With Julia and Keith Carradine he recalls “not one bad moment. It’s so easy for an actor to give a director problems. Actors can be quite contrary. But these two guys worked for the good of the show.” And there was the great Vaudeville hoofer Charles ‘Honi’ Coles, whom Tune co-starred with in My One and Only and who “was the best dancer that I ever worked with. He taught me more than anybody. And when I worked with him he was 76, so he’s still got a few years on me.”

Tune recounts one joyful memory about appearing with Coles: They performed a number together — a charming soft-shoe — that on opening night led to a tumult of uncontrollable applause. It literally stopped the show.

“I was just gobsmacked,” he says. “I leaned over to Charles and said, ‘What should we do?’ He smiled up and said, ‘Let’s do it again.’ So I just broke the fourth wall like you don’t do and said, ‘Let’s take it again from the top of the dance.’ We did it! I just thought, ‘That’s opening night — everything’s up for grabs.’But we did over 1,000 performances together and we never failed to stop the show — it happened every night! It’s when that magic thing happens, when the audience takes control of the show, that you love like theater.”

Which is exactly what Tune didn’t enjoy about one aspect of his career: Making movies. Tune kicked off his film career with a prime role opposite Barbra Streisand in the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Hello, Dolly! but he quickly soured on Hollywood.

“I hated making movies,” he says. “My whole thing is about the audience connection. In movies, you are not performing for the crew but for a machine — the camera — or yourself. It was just so unfulfilling. You never get the joy of performing a number. After Hello, Dolly! they put me in a couple episodes of Nanny and the Professor but I was burning to be back on Broadway. I asked them, will you let me out of that deal? Off I went, and fast!”

And he’s still returning to it — as a performer, director and a patron. His favorite recent shows? Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and American Idiot.

“Those are my two favorites. And it worries me that neither has found their audience but both speak to now, but work through then. [The lead in Andrew Jackson] is so good, I saw it four times. It made me laugh so hard. Maybe it was a mistake that they moved it to Broadway, but it was better than the off-Broadway version. They really sharpened it. American Idiot is highlight. I was new to Green Day — I don’t usually do anything more contemporary than the ’50s — and they just knocked me out. I’m so grateful I’ve got to do this with my life. But we need to still be respectful of our fabulous invalid called the theater.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 11, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas