One of the secrets to the longevity of the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island is that it has been singularly fortunate in its technical directors, the men or women responsible for its sets, props and lighting. In its 63 years of existence, the company has had only five technical directors: Fred Lehman, Paul Hinckley, Barry Slonim, Janette Kennedy and Martin Fuller. Beyond the creativity and superhuman work ethic that each has brought to the company, they have represented a continuity greater than the company’s directors, music directors or all but a handful of its performers.
Barry Slonim joined the company in 1980, initially serving as an assistant to tech director Paul Hinckley. Unlike the company’s other tech directors, Barry was never interested in performing—he preferred to be behind the spotlight than on the receiving end. A skilled electrician with a knack for improvisation with tools (he had been a mechanic and a tool-room clerk in the Army), Barry immediately made his presence felt with his hard work, reliability and his pleasure in working as part of a team. When Paul and Jane Hinckley moved to North Carolina, it was obvious that Barry would succeed Paul as technical director.
He would hold that post for most of the 1980s and into the early 1990s. A whole generation of company members remember afternoons spent working on sets, whether in the backyard of Barry’s home in East Meadow or in Marty Fuller’s warehouse basement, not to mention leisurely after-show visits to area diners (a native of East Meadow, Barry was a connoisseur of Long Island diners, and the company rarely found one he didn’t know).
Barry’s sets were practically designed, portable and easily adapted for stages of any size and configuration. He particularly enjoyed using electricity in his sets, whether it was for the fairy wands in Iolanthe, the dial on Big Ben in Act II of Iolanthe or the incantation scene in The Sorcerer.
During his time as tech director the company’s two spotlights were decades old and more than a little cranky, but he kept them working without fail. It was never hard to find Barry during a performance, either: From curtain up to curtain down, he was inevitably behind the spotlight, muscling it back and forth with practiced ease.
Spotlight work was never easy for Barry: Besides the fact that it required him to stand throughout the show (stressing knees which had never fully recovered from an injury sustained in the Army), Barry was significantly hard of hearing and, with the spotlight fan in his ear, could hear nothing that was happening onstage. He relied instead on his vision: I directed a number of shows with Barry as tech director, and he always asked for a copy of the staging book, so he could make notes as to who needed to be spotted at a given point and where he or she would be standing; and he took notes at the costume parades, so he could recognize each character by costume. (I remember one or two occasions when a last-minute understudy or costume change left Barry flummoxed, but he always sorted things out.)
I asked Barry’s assistant and successor, Janette Kennedy, for recollections of Barry, and she reminded me of an occasion when Barry had overseen the loading of the set into the van after a show and had then driven on to Marty’s warehouse, leaving me, her and Steve Miller to follow in the set truck. Halfway there we got a flat, and were forced to pull over, unload every bit of the set to retrieve the jack and spare, and then change the tire. After that we got the set back into the truck, cleaned ourselves up and got back into the truck. Just as Janette reached for the key, Barry pulled up next to us in his car, looked at us and said innocently, “Where have you guys been?”
Janette also said of Barry: “On behalf of all the people who have carried that damn spotlight up and down the stairs into Marty’s basement—I salute him!”
For a man with no previous experience or even interest in the theater, Barry found a home in the G&S Light Opera Company. When he finally stepped down and yielded the tech director’s job to Janette, it was not because he had lost interest in the work or love for the company, but simply because his knees had deteriorated to such a point that he could not work up to his own standards. He became a regular member of the company’s audience for years thereafter; I remember coming up to him once at the intermission of The Pirates of Penzance, and he said to me, “So that’s what this show sounds like. All those years, I never knew!”
There was much more to Barry than his theatrical work, of course. A graduate of Clarke High School in East Meadow, he attended SUNY/Canton and, after four years in the Army, worked as a service technician for medical labs, and then as a computer help-desk technician for Diageo and then IBM. He was particular active in veterans’ affairs, serving as an officer for posts of the Jewish War Veterans (commander), the Disabled American Veterans (adjutant and treasurer, Nassau County Chapter 117) and the American Legion (adjutant of East Meadow Memorial Post 1082), as well as volunteering at the Veterans Administration hospital in Northport.
He was also a passionate baseball fan and a follower of both the Mets and Yankees—which put him at odds with longtime Company stalwart Phil Gellis, a devoted Mets fan who insisted that one could be a Mets fan or a Yankees fan (he didn’t see how it could be done, but he knew that people did it), but not both. “You can’t ride two horses at once,” he told Barry, who smiled and changed the subject.
To those of us who knew him for more than a decade of Gilbert & Sullivan shows, though, Barry will always be the guy behind the spotlight, the man who, when a last-minute problem came up, would mutter an imprecation, throw up his hands … and then figure out how to fix it. I was at almost every show Barry ever did with the company; I can’t count how many last-minute problems there were, but the curtain always went up on time.