JACK BEERS – R.I.P.
JULY 27, 1910-JULY 14, 2009
Today is July 27, 2009.
99 years ago, on July 27, 1910 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, baby Jack Beers was born. On July 27, 1962 just above the Lower East Side in Manhattan, on 2nd Avenue and 17th Street, I, David Wachs, was born.
Whatever brought Jack and I together, it surely produced a relationship of deep significance – for both of us. (For those of you unaware, I was close to Jack for 25 years, and directed him in two of my films.)
Sadly, Jack passed away two weeks ago. Not from a bad heart, as his cardiologist recently said he had the heart of a 40-year-old. Jack fell again. This time he broke his arm. They put it together and he was recovering – yet again (amazingly he got over 2 cataract operations, and two tick-bite related illnesses during his late 90s)! I believe somewhere between the hospital and the elderly home he picked up something, some bug, he couldn’t shake.
Over the past year, Jack started to lose his grip on reality. Having said that, we did have a number of good ol’ arguments where he succinctly sited legalities, specifics, dates, figures, you name it. To me, he was still very lucid until the very end, although those closer to him said his mind was going.
But these are just incidentals…not important now.
He was more loving.
Unfortunately, Jack will not see his film “Holes In My Shoes” broadcasted on WNET/Channel 13 in November this year, nor the nationwide DVD release, nor his biography release, yet I am comfortable in the fact he received four proper standing ovations at four film festivals he attended. He had a day named after him in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. And the most poignant thing of all for Jack was being acknowledged by Mayor Bloomberg for Jack’s contribution to New York City. He was so moved by this, moved to genuine tears. New York was the city that Jack built, and he was acknowledged, after all.
On Jack’s birthday today, we honor him. A man of mythical proportions. Let me show you below the words read out on my behalf at his funeral, plus the powerful letter Jack read out himself in our film “Holes In My Shoes”. This was the letter to the editor of the Greenwich Times after his wife Bertha passed away in the mid 90s. I will this letter separately so that you can share it with others. Maybe Jack’s words can traverse the globe through this letter. Then I will return with some more parting comments, as I could write for quite a long time about Jack, his life, our relationship, etc.
Jack was me and I was Jack. I think most of us have a little Jack Beers in all of us.
Read at Jack’s funeral – July 15, 2009
It is difficult to put into words what Jack Beers meant to me. As you know, it took me 2 years to make a film about his life. Never mind it almost killing him, it almost killed me! Many say the making of Holes In My Shoes extended Jack’s life. I’d like to think that was true.
I can remember Jack coming in for the audition of Rosey & Jonesy, my NYU film. He was so right for the part that I asked him to play the role right away. Little did I know the amazing life that Jack had had up to that point – 1983. He was 73 years old. On the film set, Jack had no problem doing whatever I asked of him. Riding a bicycle built for 2, doing his lines from a bathtub, walking 6 dogs at once, you name it. On the shoot, Jack ripped a Manhattan telephone book in half with his bare hands. Stories about being a strong man, working on the Manhattan Project, being a dog trainer flowed from him like a fountain of intrigue and mastery. We were mesmerized. On that shoot, I said to Jack, I must make a film about your life some day.
And thank God, I did. It took just over 20 years to get around to it.
Jack and I remained close over those years. He loaned me $1000 once, and I paid him back. That put me in his good books, as I believe Jack did not trust many people. Maybe it was his upbringing. Maybe it was because he never went through that refiners fire one goes through when they’re a parent. In fact, I think Jack was a real combination of generosity and bull-headedness. Really, he was so loving and thoughtful. God knows, he earned the right to be cantankerous every so often.
And so, we made the film – together. Together, the two of us. Amazingly, at 90 years old, Jack took a writing course to get his life story down on paper. We needed that to make the film. Jack wrote and wrote and wrote. Yet, he couldn’t get too far, as writing by hand took ages. So I bought him a tape recorder and a box of tapes, and he spoke out his whole life story in detail. We transcribed it and then picked the best parts out of it for the film.
The making of the film was one of the best experiences of my life. The ultimate part was filming Jack singing “When You’re Smiling” from the top of the Empire State Building. Jack was so moved when he was at the top. He remembered it all as if it was yesterday. He pointed here there and everywhere sighting his childhood in the Lower East Side, and all the buildings he worked on. One really felt as if he built New York. And he did. As an ironworker and self-taught structural engineer. This was his town. The city that Jack built. It felt romantic and poetic. And we were a part of it.
One funny thing I’d like to share from the shoot was on the first day we were about to film at the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. Jack was eating a bagel before the first shots. And as luck would have it, he bit down and his front tooth of his denture broke off. What were we to do!? Well, like a true Jack moment, he said, ‘Wait a second. I think I have my other back-up dentures in my bag.’ And sure enough, he did, and we were saved.
One other funny thing that happened after the shoot was when Jack called me in England (Jack was 94 or 95 at this point). I was in the middle of editing the film. He said, ‘I have bad news. I’m worried if you need to come back here to re-shoot any scenes.’ ‘Why?’, I said. ‘Well. I was fixing a part of my tractor in my garage. I needed to do some welding and I needed to find the thing that sparks the light for my gas torch. I left the gas on and when I found the fire starter and flicked it, the gas blew up the garage.’ I exclaimed, ‘Oh my God. Are you ok?!’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s why I’m calling. I’m worried that the continuity of the film will be wrong if you need to film again because I’ve burned off most of my beard and eye brows.’
That was Jack. Always concerned about all details about others and everything else to do with getting the job done correctly; never mind almost killing himself in the process. He really was a Jack of all trades.
Even at 97 he filmed a music video with me for “When You’re Smiling”. Acting to the very end.
The world has lost a giant. A true character. A legend in his own time. Someone made of biblical proportions.
I will miss Jack. He was my alter ego. We shared the same birthday, July 27, but I never felt any age barrier. He transcended age somehow.
I will leave you with one last word about our film experience for me. In Holes In My Shoes, I asked Jack to let me film him showering naked. At 94, he had no problem with this. I was the director and his job was to do what he was asked. He was a true professional. No questions. These moments were the most precious. There was a man of his age with fully formed large muscles, the muscles of a New York City’s Strongest Boy, bearing his naked self to us. Raw and real. It was very moving.
I was so pleased he was able to get standing ovations at our film screenings in New York City, Coney Island, Greenwich, CT, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The world got to know him, and he could finally receive the appreciation he deserved.
And, finally, I must mention how moved I was by his love of his parents and of Bertha. What a privilege to have been let into his life.
Doctors Robin and Benjamin, Jack cared so much for you and was eternally grateful for all your support, care and love, as well as your wives. He spoke so often to me about you. And he really appreciated Dr. Olin’s care in his final years.
But I must leave the final word for Tory. As Jack truly felt you, Tory, were the son he never had. He couldn’t have spoken more about his care for you and gratitude for your dedication to him. That was true service. I know it was mutually rewarding. You put up with his wonderful eccentricity for more years worth mentioning, but I know you had great times and a great closeness. So, thank you.
So, Jack, you didn’t make 100, but who cares. You were going for it, and go for it you did. You were my hero and ultimately could do no wrong. I loved you very much and always will. You are a part of me and all those who are gathered here today. Your stories will inspire people for generations to come. It was an honor knowing you, and a great laugh. I will miss you very much.
When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.
God bless you, Jack Beers.
July 14, 2009
A Short Discourse On Life
October 16, 1998
Dear Editor (Greenwich Times);
I’m 88 years old and I’ve lived in Greenwich for 45 years. A few months ago, my wife Bertha left this great veil of tears and I was grief stricken. I was surprised how suicidal one can become when you lose a loved one.
When I was mourning my wife’s departure, I was thinking and asking myself many questions.
What is it all about? What is the meaning of our lives? What is the real purpose of our struggle and spiritual hunger? Our victories and achievements? Our sacrifices and suffering? What are we living for? What are we after?
I believe you’ll discover, as I did, that love is what it’s all about. The love of God and man, and when you have found out what it’s all about, you’ll know that the object of life is not to be smart but wise, not to be rich, but generous, not to be a racist or bigot but tolerant, not to be powerful but loving, not to serve yourself but to serve humanity, with courage and charity.
So there you have it.
Really, the best way to honor Jack is to share his stories. Tell them. I will hopefully make Jack’s life story that he read out on tape available for all to hear. Certainly, the film will help him live forever. What can I say, life brings us treasures and we must seize them. We must feel we’re worthy of good relationships, worthy of good experiences, worthy of great opportunities in all areas of life. This is what Jack taught me. We’re all worth it.
Thank you to everyone who knew and loved Jack. He cherished his friendships.
In Jack’s final years, he drove a car until he was 96. He even filmed a music video at 97. Of course, for his own health, he had to leave his wonderful home behind in the last couple years, for his own safety. Yet he was doing his own cooking and laundry to the very end; even on the tractor and cutting down branches until he was 96. That’s how he contracted Lyme disease (which he beat at even his age). Amazing. Amazing man.
There was no age barrier when I spoke to Jack. The physical disappeared and I was enveloped with ‘Jackness’. I was speaking to a friend, a mate. I called Jack my ‘surrogate grandfather’, but in actuality he was my good good friend. I will miss our talks. I will miss his stories. I will miss his chivalry and politeness of times gone by. I will miss the twinkle in his eye when he smiled.
I told Jack I loved him the last few times we spoke and when I saw him last; we kibbutzed over some chicken and mashed potatoes.
Thank you, Jack. As you always said to me, zei gazunt (be healthy).
You were blessed with good health, Jack.
Your parents would have been so proud of you. We all are.
July 27, 2009