"It's hard to put into words the feelings," Shirley Gershman, mother of the late Howard Ashman -- Baltimore-born lyricist and executive producer of "Beauty and the Beast" -- said from Los Angeles late last night after the Disney animated feature won Oscars for best song and score.
Ashman, who died of AIDS at age 40 a little more than a year ago, was represented at the awards by Gershman; his sister, Sarah Gillespie, a vice president of the United Media syndicate; his agent, Esther Sherman; and his longtime companion William Lauch, a New York architect.
Though many of the presenters and nominees at last night's Academy Award ceremony wore red ribbons symbolizing AIDS awareness, the most poignant statement came when Lauch accepted Ashman's award for the title song from "Beauty and the Beast."
"This is the first Academy Award given to someone we've lost to AIDS," Lauch said. "In working on 'Beauty and the Beast,' Howard faced incredible personal challenges but always gave his best, and what made that possible was an atmosphere of understanding, love and support. That's something everyone facing AIDS not only needs, but deserves.
"There's an inscription on Howard's grave in Baltimore," Lauch continued. "It reads: 'Oh, that he had one more song to sing.' We'll never hear that song, but I'm deeply grateful for this tribute you've given for what he left behind."
Sitting in her Mount Washington apartment a few days before she left for California, Gershman said although she would have liked to have given the acceptance speech, she agreed to let Lauch have the privilege since "he felt strongly about being Howard's spouse, and he thought Howard would want it that way."
Ashman's spirit was also evoked earlier in last night's program when his composer, Alan Menken, accepted the best score award. Menken, who also collaborated with Ashman on the "The Little Mermaid" and "Little Shop of Horrors" said, "Howard, I wish you could have seen the finished product. I wish you could have heard the finished score. I know you would have been proud."
"Beauty and the Beast" was the first animated feature ever nominated for best picture. Gershman said last night she didn't expect it to win. "But," she said, "it was great that it was nominated, and Disney and everybody is thrilled and so am I."
Gershman arrived in Los Angeles Saturday and attended a party Sunday night given by Roy Disney, vice chairman of the Disney board. In recent weeks, she was thankful for the Oscar preparations, she said.
Acknowledging that "the excitement makes it easier to bear" her loss, Gershman -- who gives talks on AIDS awareness to young people in Baltimore -- also expressed hope that some of the attention being paid to her son now might result in more widespread awareness of AIDS. "I just hope they can save some of the people who are now destined to die from this dreaded disease," she said.
Ironically, while Lauch's acceptance speech may have been one of the most open affirmations of homosexuality in the history of the Academy Awards, the ceremony was picketed by members of the gay and lesbian communities protesting negative movie portrayals of homosexuality. Gershman said the protest made it impossible for cars to approach the pavilion. She also said she found the demonstration disturbing. "I think it was wrong," she commented. "This wasn't the place for it."