Howard Ashman's memory stays alive through performances of his songs

June 04, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

At an Annapolis piano bar, they're playing the songs again that Howard Ashman taught the world to sing.

Dick Gessner's Broadway Corner on Route 50 is having another AIDS benefit with a series of shows, which concludes with performances Sunday through Wednesday, featuring 35 songs by the late Baltimore-born lyricist. And this time, tickets are still available.

In late February, Mr. Gessner organized his first benefit to raise money for HERO, Maryland's largest nonprofit organization helping people who have AIDS.

It took only three weeks and word of mouth to sell 600 tickets and raise about $13,000. The demand was so great that the club even sold tickets to the dress rehearsals.

"Our phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting to known when were we going to do it again," says Mr. Gessner, a popular pianist who has played in local nightspots for the past 30 years.

He expected his second show to sell out as well, but only 28 people showed up Tuesday for opening night. A larger crowd came Wednesday night, so Mr. Gessner has his fingers crossed that he will have a full house next week.

The benefit features two hours of toe-tapping numbers by Mr. Ashman, who won Academy Awards for his lyrics in the Disney movies "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." Mr. Ashman died at age 40 of an AIDS-related illness in March 1991.

In the last two years, his mother, Shirley Gershman, has arranged three musical benefits for the Baltimore-based HERO (Health Education Resource Organization.) She and her husband, Al, also frequently give talks to schoolchildren and church groups to raise awareness about AIDS.

The Gershmans, regulars at Dick Gessner's, say the benefits help keep the memory of Mr. Ashman alive.

"For me it's therapy," Mrs. Gershman says with a slight grin. "It's cheaper than a psychiatrist, and a lot more fun."

A 35-member chorus performs the favorite Broadway hits by Mr. Ashman, including songs from "God Bless You Mr. Rosewater," Mr. Ashman's first off-Broadway show, the hit "Little Shop of Horrors," and "Aladdin," the last Disney movie he worked on before he died.

An old black-and-white photo of Mr. Ashman is displayed on the piano, which is played by Mr. Gessner. The show opens with a recording of him singing "Sheridan Square," a song he wrote in the early 1980s when his friends began dying of diseases caused by AIDS.

Buzz Merrick, a development director for HERO, joined the chorus as soon as he heard about the benefit.

The money from this revue will go to restoring full service to the state's AIDS hot line, which was cut from 40 hours a week to 20 because of budget problems. HERO wants to take over running the service, he says.

HERO raised some $250,000 in April at an anniversary gala in Baltimore that paid tribute to Mr. Ashman. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was the host. Disney Corp. contributed $25,000 in memory of Mr. Ashman, his mother said.

Tickets for a matinee Sunday and dinner shows Monday through Wednesday are $25. The night shows start at 7:30 p.m.

For more information, call 410-974-1825.

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