Songwriter's mother sings not to cry Ashman's Oscar often sits nearby

September 02, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS -- The Oscar that Howard Ashman did not live to claim stood on the white grand piano at Dick Gessner's Broadway Corner all Saturday night long.

It stood there until closing time, until the last of the gifted amateurs and the local dinner theater pros had taken a turn singing in the spotlights. They sang songs from Broadway and movies in the presence of Oscar, glossy totem of all their ambitions.

During the break, they gathered around it, close enough to see their breath fog the sheen. Closer than the winner himself ever came.

The Baltimore-born Mr. Ashman and his collaborator Alan Menken won Oscars for best song and score this year for the music of the animated Disney film "Beauty and the Beast." But when it came time to give out the awards in Los Angeles, Mr. Ashman had already been dead nearly a year. He died March 14, 1991, of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He was 40.

His mother, Shirley Gershman, who lives in Baltimore County, sat in the audience at the Academy Awards that night when the Oscars were handed out. And when she and her husband, Albert Gershman, walked into Gessner's last Saturday night just before 9 o'clock, they carried the best song Oscar with them. It was wrapped in a gray cloth bag.

For about six months now, she and her husband have been showing up at Gessner's, a live music and dance club on U.S. 50. Sometimes she brings the Oscar. Usually she sings.

When Ms. Gershman sings, the crowd hears the voice of a former showgirl, a member of the Baltimore group the Curtain Callers. Ms. Gershman got enough taste of the road more than 40 years ago to know she'd rather stay close to home and raise a family. But she never stopped singing.

Around the family rowhouse in Baltimore County she would sing opera, operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan. She sang at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Howard Ashman grew up with the sound of his mother singing.

From the time he was old enough to sit through a matinee she would take him to shows under the tent at Owings Mills. At 6 he started performing in children's theater. He was the blond, blue-eyed boy director, writer, producer, performer of backyard productions who never for a moment entertained a doubt that his adult life would revolve around show business.

From his mother, Mr. Ashman would hear no discouraging words.

"I knew he loved it, and I loved it," she said. "And I thought 'If he's got it, let him go for it.' "

Around the time her son moved to New York City in 1974, she said, she sensed he had the gift. By then, his father, Ray Ashman, had died, and would not see his son's grand success.

In 1983, lyricist Ashman and composer Menken won the Drama Critics Award for the book, lyrics and music of "Little Shop of Horrors." In 1989, the Ashman-Menken team won two Grammys and two Golden Globes for the score of the Disney movie "The Little Mermaid." That year, the song "Under the Sea," from "Mermaid," won an Oscar for best song.

After her son died, Ms. Gershman decided not to withdraw in grief. For months she has been on the circuit, talking to students about their health and their responsibility.

This winter, Ms. Gershman and her husband went to Dick Gessner's for the first time with friends. Just being there, hearing the show music, hearing her son's work performed, made her want to sing again. For herself and for her son.

"That's why this place has been so good for me. It's like a catharsis."

She has brought the Oscar a few times, although she says "sometimes I feel a little funny about it. Am I exploiting Howard? Am I bragging? . . . The reason I bring the award down, most people, just everyday people like me, never get a chance to see anything like that. I think it's something that ought to be shared."

She stepped into the lights about 9:30 that night and sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in a high, sweet voice.

Then she sang "Beauty and the Beast," starting once, then hesitating. As she began again: "Tale as old as time, true as it can be," club manager Liz Sharp appeared with the Oscar and placed it on the piano. It reflected the movements of the white-haired woman whose voice once filled the house where the boy director nurtured his dreams.

"When I sing his songs at Dick's I don't think about him being dead," she said later. "I celebrate his life."

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