An era ended when Bob Tartell died at 87 on Nov. 27, 2013. He was the last surviving performer of the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island’s earliest days, in the mid-1950s, as well as a mainstay of the Gilbert & Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera of Long Island.
In civilian life a Valley Stream-based dentist and longtime resident of West Hempstead, Tartell joined what would later become the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island in 1956. He quickly established himself as a favorite of company audiences, particularly known for his performances as Captain Corcoran in H.M.S. Pinafore, the Sergeant in The Pirates of Penzance and Pooh-Bah in The Mikado.
As the years passed, Tartell became increasingly active in the administration of the company, serving at various times as its president and as treasurer. He and his longtime friend Elaine Lerner served as the company’s business managers for many years.
In the late 1970s Tartell was one of the prime movers in what began as a branch of the company performing Gilbert & Sullivan in Yiddish, creating the role of Der Kapitan in the company’s production of Miriam Walowitz’s Der Shirtz (a Yiddish Pinafore, later expanded into Der Yiddisher Pinafore) and later appearing in Walowitz’s Der Yiddisher Mikado and Al Grand’s Di Yam Gazlonim (a Yiddish Pirates of Penzance).
Tartell performed less often with the English-language company in the 1990s, putting his formidable energies primarily into the Yiddish company, which had been spun off as the Gilbert & Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera Company in the mid-1980s. With Tartell as producer, the company toured nationally with its Yiddish productions and took them to Canada and England as well. Its success in propagating and sustaining this unique aspect of Jewish culture was among Tartell’s greatest satisfactions, reflecting as it did his lifelong commitment to Judaism and his Jewish heritage.
He continued to appear occasionally in English productions throughout his 70s, reprising his role as Captain Corcoran in the Long Island premiere production of Utopia Limited in 2001 and performing one of his favorite songs, Iolanthe’s “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” in the company’s 50th-anniversary production of Very Truly Yours, Gilbert & Sullivan in 2003. His last appearance with the company came in 2007, as a reader in two complete readings of Tennyson’s epic poem The Princess in conjunction with the company’s production of Princess Ida, which is based on Tennyson’s poem.
Tartell was nothing if not a man of diverse talents. In addition to singing and acting Gilbert & Sullivan in both English and Yiddish, he was a passionate devotee of Schubert, hosting regular musicales at which he and his friends would perform art music by a variety of composers. He was a voracious reader, a self-taught financial expert, a talented artist and for many years a regular participant in the New York City Marathon.
Most of all Tartell was an aficionado, a man who devoted his life to doing the things that were important to him, and doing them with passion and zeal. No one who saw him perform ever got anything less than the best he had to offer.
I joined the company in 1976 and performed with and/or directed Tartell on numerous occasions for the next 30 years. I was proud to consider him a friend and mentor, and glad to have worked with him so often.
He was an excellent singer and a funny, funny actor. There are better singers and better actors, but I never knew one who brought more joy to his work than Bob Tartell. In English or in Yiddish, he always had a great time, and his audiences did too.