Robert Miller Cooper: May 10, 1932–July 14, 2018
My mom is an optimist, relentless at seeing potential, willing what could be into this dimension. Overlooking, forgiving, wish fulfilling.
She didn’t think Grandpa would die. I sought her assurance. I’m struggling with the finality of his last breath, a bubble of air and saliva. No more instructions to watch Jeopardy. No more midnight wake-ups when he was finally ready for dinner and discovered I put his cooked, albeit raw, steak in the fridge, not the microwave as he asked. There won’t be follow-up conversations, him saying the food was delicious; no further explanations about his personality, that he is “precise” and doesn’t like things different than he expects. No more unwelcome surprises. I can’t hold his hand as we talk; rub his aching right leg; or, after hearing the specialists only want to check on “their work,” tell him I will make those doctors listen.
He wasn’t ready to go. It wasn’t “his time.” His death was sudden, a shock, after a quick decline. Until last month, three of my grandparents were still alive. Two step-grandfathers had already passed, and my dad’s dad died before I was born. Grandpa would be around the longest, we figured.
He phoned my mom this spring when he was diagnosed with cancer, telling her not to bother telling anyone else. He didn’t want to hear any overtures of pity; he mimicked over the phone what he didn’t want to hear. She asked if she could let her siblings know, and he allowed it. She told him she’d fly to New York to be with him. I heard his reply by speaker phone, “I know, darling. You would do anything for me.”
Maybe she could’ve chosen to stay stuck — angry at him for leaving 50 years ago; if she did, maybe she would try today to control what never could’ve been controlled before — outcomes, others’ responses. But it isn’t her way, to assume or blame or judge. Mom accepted her dad’s limitations along with his talents.
“I just miss my dad,” she told me yesterday.
She reached out as a daughter, a would-be agent, as a fixer and producer. She had a relationship with her father. She did what a bumper crop of mindfulness apps and classes try to instill: Accept what isn’t desired or expected. She accepted him as he was. That’s grace. Alongside the sting of his loss, the finality of his exit, that grace is freedom.
• • •
May 10, 1932–July 14, 2018
Robert Miller Cooper died on Saturday, July 14 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He was 86 years old. He lived for the past forty-five years on Central Park West.
Bob was director and co-producer of the musical phenomenon, Bubbling Brown Sugar, which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical. It played 766 times on Broadway and lost the Tony Award to A Chorus Line, which swept the awards. Vivian Reed was nominated for her first Tony Award for her performance in Bubbling Brown Sugar.
Born on May 10, 1932 in Detroit, Michigan, Bob was the youngest of three children. Both of his parents — William Russell Cooper and Emma Louisa Miller Cooper — were children of Salvation Army missionaries. Bob wrote of his mother that he remembered most “her strength, endurance, and her dedication to her children.” “Yet,” he added, “I don’t remember her saying, ‘I love you,’ to anyone.” Bob’s father, a salesman, was a semi-professional baseball player in Canada, where he was born, and, Bob wrote, a “would-be singer, writer, rich man.”
Bob graduated from Mackenzie High School in 1950. As class president, he penned the opening message in his senior yearbook: “And now…the future! That’s the way it is…always it seems so far away…then suddenly it’s here today, the future we have anticipated.” He wrote that the task of high school was “to learn to think for ourselves; to better understand our fellow man; but most of all, to understand ourselves.”
Bob moved to Chicago and came of age as an actor at the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago (which is now The Theatre School at DePaul University). He received the Chicago Drama Critics Award for outstanding performance, then landed his first professional acting job in a musical revue, at the Empire Room in the Palmer House Hotel.
On June 30, 1954, Bob married Lois Wahl, another Chicago actor, and the couple moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida with their six-week-old firstborn, Leslie, in 1955. Bob founded a theatrical touring company, which presented plays for children throughout the state. An article in the Fort Lauderdale News on Oct. 8, 1960 quoted Bob as saying, “Our company is designed to develop a broader understanding for our children toward the theater arts and contribute to the cultural growth of our community. We want to develop and educate future audiences and acquaint our children with ways of life, through drama, of peoples of other lands in other times.”
Bob also helped form the Alley Theater, an off-Broadway style repertory company. As artistic director, the Alley was Bob’s workshop; he produced and directed European classics, contemporary comedy and drama, musical revues, and cabaret entertainment. He began to work in radio and television as an actor, director, and writer. “If it wasn’t for Bob Cooper, I never would have been in the theater,” said Paula Terry, who performed under Bob’s direction in several musicals at Alley Theater. “It was like our home away from home — the theater — and Bob opened a lot of doors.” Bob lined up a meeting for Paul and she was cast in the movie, Safe at Home! featuring New York Yankees Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
In 1963, Bob, Lois, and their four children moved back to Chicago, to the Uptown neighborhood. Bob taught acting and he directed. George Lee Andrews, Guinness World Record holder for most performances (9,382) in the same Broadway show (The Phantom of the Opera) said Bob’s guidance (in several industrial shows) was very important in those years. George loved working with Bob, who helped him think about how to bring humor on stage.
In Chicago, Bob was also a freelance actor and writer, before becoming artistic director of Take Ten, Inc., a communications company. He worked with new playwrights and composers, and he developed original musicals, industrial shows, motion pictures, and radio and television commercials.
In 1968, Bob moved to New York City. He was a producer-director with Charisma and Caribiner Productions and then, as head of production at Comart-Aniforms, he produced and staged a 40-hour educational TV series, The Place of Doors, as well as several industrial and theme park shows.
In 1974, Bob partnered with three African-American producers — James Lloyd Grant, Richard Bell, and Ashton Springer — as a co-producer and the director of Bubbling Brown Sugar, written by Loften Mitchell based on a concept by Rosetta LeNoire. The musical featured Harlem Renaissance music and was set in a nightclub. It first opened in New York City on February 15, 1975 at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, with a run of 12 performances. Bob then led a 10-month national tour of the musical in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Toronto in order to test the show and prove there would be an audience.
According to a feature article in the December 1977 edition of Black Enterprise magazine, “Most pre-Broadway runs are limited to one or two cities during which time the producers expect to lose money. Bubbling Brown Sugar’s success on the road made a great deal of news in theater and by the time it returned to New York its reputation had preceded it.” The producers needed $400,000 for the Broadway opening and, according to the article, "they had no trouble finding investors.”
Bubbling Brown Sugar opened on Broadway, at the ANTA Playhouse, in March of 1976. Investments were recouped within three months. During the 1976-1977 theater season, the musical was the fourth most profitable show on Broadway, grossing more than $9.5 million in ticket sales. Bob directed five tours of Bubbling Brown Sugar in Europe. He also supervised the London Company, which won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 1977.
Bob then directed and co-produced the acclaimed off-Broadway musical, On Toby Time, about a Black vaudeville troupe, circa 1936. He later co-produced Mahalia at the Henry Street Playhouse.
In addition to his work as an actor, director, and producer, Bob was a writer. In recent years, Bob wrote a play, Jumpin’ Jive, set in the 1940s; The musical has yet to be staged. He also wrote a novel, Jive, which is the expanded story behind the musical. Up through his final days, Bob was still trying to find trusted collaborators to stage his musical, publish his novel, and option the movie rights.
Of his work on productions with all-Black casts and his original work, Jumpin’ Jive and Jive, Bob wrote: “In fact, what did I really know about the Black experience?” He conducted research and wrote about what he did know — “middle class America, show business, the Army, the Depression, WWII, and bigotry.” He wrote: “I know about bigotry and prejudice, not as a victim of it but as a practitioner. My parents were bigots who sincerely believed that we white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were better than everybody else.” Bob hoped that the African-American characters and interracial relationships in his work would allow white readers to “identify, admire, even envy, but especially bond so that when these characters suffer abuse and persecution we take it personally.” He was a creative force whose work was activism; he wanted to challenge racists: “So, how do you like it?”
Bob developed six television programs and game shows that have yet to be produced. He loved “the island” (Manhattan), which he noted with pride he didn’t leave for several decades. He watched Jeopardy ritually.
His daughter, Leslie Reese, had been working for years, from a distance, to help him materialize his vision; his granddaughter, Abbie Reese, an author and filmmaker, was in the process of moving in with him, as his Girl Friday, to help bring his work into the world. Several days before he died, Bob quoted Clint Eastwood playing Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Bob wrote of his artistic calling: “All I ever wanted was to work at my trade and get paid for it. Fame and riches never figured in. At first it was to act. Later, it was to direct. Some get a calling to the ministry; others to medicine; still others to the arts. While the first two are honored and respected and never in want of work, we oddballs who neither preach nor heal take on every sort of hateful so-called ‘honest’ job that would afford us to answer our calling, whither or not it paid us a dime. To the artist, there are things we have to do to survive and things we must do to live. The calling is not a gentle whisper but a shout that comes from within and without like that nagging melody that we can’t — nor want to — get out of our heads. Once we answer that important call, once we get to do what we were meant to do and get paid to do it, there’s no going back! We have reached and realized our bliss. Oh, to do what you were born to do and earn a living doing it — it is a blessing.”
Bob is survived by four children: Leslie “Lee” (Dr. David) Reese of Lanark, Illinois; Kimberly (Jay) Reese of Villa Park, Illinois; David Cooper (Lorin Benincasa) of Woodridge, Illinois; and Robert Cooper of Woodridge, Illinois; ten grandchildren: Fairlight (Peter) Matthews, Abbie Reese, Isaac (Britney) Reese, Aaron (Robin) Reese, Sara (Rob) van Der Capellen, Hannah Reese (Mark) Ledesma, Caleb Reese, Abraham Reese, Louisa Reese, and Taylor Cooper; six great-grandchildren: Evan Rusmisel, Gabriel Matthews, Nicholas Matthews, Noah van Der Capellen, Eloise van Der Capellen, and Henry Ledesma; his ex-wife, Lois Wahl Cooper Cartwright; and his partner of more than 20 years, Elizabeth Pimentel.
He was preceded in death by his brother, William “Bill” Cooper, and his sister, Barbara Cooper Svenson. Bob was so-named and nicknamed, he wrote, so he would be the “last of the 3 B’s.”