The Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island lost a friend and colleague when Robert Charles Rhodes died on August 24. A member of the company from 1993 to his death, he was also one of the few company members to have Broadway and Off-Broadway credits. More singularly, he was almost certainly its most frequent performer who never played a named Gilbert & Sullivan character or even appeared in the chorus of a G&S opera.
A gifted actor with no gift for memorization, Rhodes appeared in only one of the company’s main productions, playing Mr. Bunthorne’s Solicitor in the 1993 production of Patience. He would instead make his mark as a regular in the company’s series of staged readings of W.S. Gilbert plays in the early 2000s, including The Palace of Truth, Pygmalion and Galatea and, most notably, as the wily con artist Col. O’Fipp in Tom Cobb, and in particular as the Narrator in A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol. He first played the role in the show’s world premiere in 1994, and reprised it frequently for the next 15 years.
He was the only cast member of the company’s G&S Christmas Carol to continue into the show’s Off-Broadway premiere in 2001, presented by the New Punctuation Army at the José Quintero Theatre on 42nd Street. Reviewing that production, The New Yorker observed: “Robert Charles Rhodes, as the ever-present narrator, and Barry Kaplan as Scrooge are particularly engaging.” (This review so delighted Rhodes, a lifelong reader of The New Yorker, that he went out and bought dozens of copies for friends and neighbors—an unusual extravagance for a man who knew the value of a dollar.)
An adoptee (he observed the date of his adoption, in February 1927, as his birthday, though in later life he appreciated the chance to celebrate two birthdays a year), Rhodes was a resident of Queens Village for most of his life, as an adult living across the street from the house in which he had been raised. He made his Broadway debut in Life with Father (1939), occasionally substituting for one of the children. The engagement came about because one of the producers was a friend of his parents and spotted the boy’s gregarious, outgoing nature—characteristics that would continue for the rest of his life. When he returned to professional theater in A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol, it marked the end of a 62-year hiatus.
Setting acting aside, Rhodes served in the U.S. Army during World War II and then became an attorney specializing in international law. He married, and he and his wife, Terry, had one son, Dennis, whom they brought up in Queens Village. (Dennis would go on to work as a professional stage carpenter, continuing the family’s long, if erratic, association with the stage.)
Retiring in 1992, the 65-year-old Rhodes cast about for ways to occupy his time and decided that it was time to return to the theater. He began auditioning for community-theater productions, and it was at one of these auditions, for a Theatre Box production of My Fair Lady, that I first met him. He struck up a conversation while waiting to audition, and again when we were both cast (him impeccably as Col. Pickering, myself ludicrously as Freddie Eynsford-Hill). That production never came off, but we remained friends for the rest of his life.
Besides his work with the company, Rhodes was active with various community-theater companies in Queens, notably the Douglaston Community Theater, in whose production of Hugh Leonard’s Da he was memorable as the title character. He also wrote several plays and an unpublished mystery novel, conducted pro-bono legal work for friends and neighbors, and was an accomplished artist in pencil, pen-and-ink and paints: Well into his 80s he would regularly bicycle from Queens Village to the grounds of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City for a day of drawing from life, and his house was filled with his strikingly realistic renderings in a variety of media.
Robert Charles Rhodes is survived by his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. He will be remembered in the company, and among his many friends outside it, for his quick wit, ebullient spirits and unfailing good nature. A larger-than-life character, Rhodes relished his own eccentricity but was always eager to help anyone who needed him. At rehearsals and performances alike, he was easygoing, relaxed and always ready with a quip. Every show in which he participated was the better for his presence.