Rodger Pettyjohn, 9/29/52 - 6/26/91
Hello faithful readers. First I want to make a correction - the person who was our interim director in 1985 after Matt O'Grady left us was Bill Ganz, a member of the chorus and director of a chorus subgroup, Vocal Minority. Those early months in 1985 we were down to a core group of 12 singers. With Bill we continued to rehearse and sing at hospitals and hospices. We were fortunate to have Russell Kassman donate rehearsal space in his piano store for us at that time.
Some of what follows is from an article written by chorus member Karen McMickle and my memories of Rodger Pettyjohn. After an artistic director search, Rodger came to us in September 1985. He had already had a history in San Francisco of making music. In 1980, his first venture into community organizing came as the creator of the men's chamber chorus Die Mannerstimmen and co-founder of the Society of Gay and Lesbian Composers in 1981. Based on the ideal of inclusion rather than exclusion, the successful Composers' Society was a daring move at a time when gender separatism ran high within the gay community. Rodger left the Composers' Society in 1983 to spend a year in Germany studying composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen. This mentor impressed upon him the importance of the computer in contemporary classical music. When he returned to San Francisco, he began experimenting with all electronic compositions such as his Electronic Etudes.
As you will see, 1986 was a busy year for Rodger and the chorus. When he came to the chorus, Rodger's firm insistence on bonding the members of LGCSF together into a family succeeded in bringing the group from near extinction. He saw great potential in LGCSF being a highly visible statement of of the positive achievement made possible by men and women working together. After "making LGCSF known to the community" by having them sing on Castro street corners, in April 1986 Rodger led the chorus in a concert whose theme was his most ardent political cause - individual rights and freedom. Proceeds from this successful performance earned commemoration on the Statue of Liberty's plaque for the first openly gay group to donate to the restoration fund.
At the Pride Concert in June, "A Little Guts & Lots of Glitter", LGCSF received the first standing ovation in their history. Caught up in the enthusiasm generated by the audience, Rodger launched into an unplanned, unrehearsed rendition of "I Sing the Body Electric" without music. Halfway through the piece, the entire group forgot the song. Our accompanist, the brilliant Dwight Okamura, vigorously vamped and Rodger conducted with committed determination until the collective memory of the performers returned and, as if on cue, they finished with a resounding "We are the emperors now and we are the czars, and in time we will all be stars." The crowd went wild with another ovation, more for our chutzpah and Rodger than for the technical performance of the song. But that was what he brought to us, that feeling we could do anything.
In August 1986, a landmark performance by LGCSF showcasing works by lesbian and gay composers inaugurated the San Francisco Arts and Athletics Gay Games II Procession of the Arts. The concert featured the premiere of "For Those We Love" by Rodger. It integrated soloists, chorus, instruments and electronic musical and visual media. We also performed "Passengers of Infinity" by Kristin Norderval, which was commissioned by Rodger for LGCSF. This concert won LGCSF their first Cable Car Award for Outstanding Concert and Rodger was featured in the cover article in "The Advocate" magazine.
For the Gay Games proper, Rodger had put the finishing touches on "The Best of Games are Gay," with words by James Broughton. This was the Gay Games II anthem and was performed at the closing ceremonies by a chorus comprised of men and women from all of the Bay Area gay choruses. This was a precedent setting event which impressed Gay Games delegates from around the world with Rodger's idea that unity within the community could become a reality.
That fall, Rodger was busy creating and directing Menage, an octet of professional singers culled from the ranks of LGCSF. The small size of this group allowed him to get his message of gay men and women together out to non-concert goers at bars, cabarets, and private parties. He also had Menage singing outside the gay ghetto by having them perform for more mainstream events.
His last time directing LGCSF was in the SFGMC's show "Now Sing with Hearts Aglow." He had been diagnosed with "severe ARC" and he resigned from his nursing job and LGCSF. He moved back to New York and began the next part of his life showing the world that his new audio-visual works were anything but MTV. He was also one of the original members of the New York organizing committee of the National Leather Conference. He also began giving free AIDS education lectures at the Community Health Project in NYC. He returned to San Francisco for the 1990 AIDS Conference and was an active member of Act Up New York. On June 26, 1991, Rodger died peacefully in NYC at the age of 38. He was an amazingly creative man. In that short time he lived a full life doing what he wanted to do and his many gifts will live on in the hearts of us who knew him and sang with him.
Next week I will be writing about Pat Parr.
Cheers and love, Michael Lucero