Family and friends to celebrate life of longtime theater critic and poet, Charlene Baldridge
By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor
“She’s gone. Mother left this world on Saturday evening. Always knew just how to pick an exit. … ”
That’s how Chuck Ortego, Charlene Baldridge’s only surviving adult child, began his post sharing the news of his mother’s passing with the San Diego Theater Critic’s Circle.
Charlene, a member of that prestigious group for decades, had taken a fall while getting into a car in May and had broken her neck. She was in rehabilitation, recovering from the fall and its subsequent surgery, when she suffered a series of strokes and died on Sept. 9. She was 83.
Charlene had written for the San Diego Community News Network (SDCNN) since its inception in 2007, and for our publisher’s former news organization, the San Diego Community Newspaper Group, for decades before that.
She had been many things in her life: a soprano, a banker, a public relations maven; a freelance writer; a lover of all things music and theater; and a mother to three children, two whose deaths she had survived.
I had been Charlene’s editor for exactly five years when I got an email telling me she was in the hospital and would not be back. I felt her loss immediately.
Her full departure has hit me harder than I expected, but I really shouldn’t be surprised; she was a force to be reckoned with and strong of heart, mind and spirit all the way to the end. You couldn’t help but be pulled in to what some describe as Charlene’s “vortex.”
I had great respect for her experiences and was, quite frankly, often in awe of her, because regardless of her challenges, she was always eager to work, and never missed a show or a deadline, even turning her reviews around overnight, when necessary.
Charlene loved writing feature stories, too. She wrote about San Diego Opera, its history, financial troubles and executive directors; previews of an upcoming Broadway San Diego, the local Fringe Festival, or Mainly Mozart season; and even an interview with the wife of Gene Kelly.
One of my favorites was when Charlene would “look back” at the year in theater for our January issues. I loved her writing; it often forced me to look words up, which I enjoy doing, but as an editor, know that readers may not. Whenever I’d reach out suggesting a possible word swap, I generally got a good scolding. I eventually just let her chosen words grace the page.
I took the first step beyond our purely business relationship the day I went to her apartment for an interview about a chapbook she was editing for publication. “The Warrior’s Stance” was a compilation of her late daughter Laura’s personal poems, written over a three-year period while she battled stage IV colon cancer. Laura had personally left her the task, she told me.
Some of the work was complete, some had been written in the margins of books and journals, others had been left half-finished, and still others Charlene had found scribbled on separate pieces of paper. But she was fully immersed in every passage and pieced them together like a sleuth on a mission.
As she went into detail about their annual voyages around the world, their complicated but loving relationship and the strength of her daughter’s spirit, her own strength showed through. It became clear that even though this was Laura’s work, seeing it to fruition had become Charlene’s passion. This effort was to be a mother’s tribute to her daughter; a writer’s nod to her longtime competitor, critic and oft-time muse; and once completed, the work would also help fill the void created by Laura’s absence.
Charlene would donate all proceeds from the chapbook to the Colon Cancer Alliance in Washington, D.C.
When I left her house that day, I was wrapped tight with emotion and remember sitting in my car for a very long time before I was able to drive away. Being born the same year as Laura and having lost my own mother at age 32, to witness both Charlene’s deeply personal testimony of the nuances of their bond and her steadfast determination to publish her daughter’s work moved me greatly.
Last year she sent me a poem she’d written about Laura just a few days before. [Printed as received.]
A High Is Gathering Over the Western States
By Charlene Baldridge
on anniversaries and holidays I imagine
you with me, like yesterday when Hershey
played Tchaikovsky for me, traversing
the Seasons and the longing evoked by
the Sugar Plum Fairy’s pas de deux.
You and I had many duets,
dancing in foreign lands, trying to make
harmony at Anne Hathaway’s garden,
in Father Damien’s leper colony, in
the zoo at Belize, meandering the brook in Lithia
Park, hearing music in the cacophony of the bells
at midnight in Gubbio, tasting it in fried artichokes
in a neighborhood restaurant in Rome, where little
old widowers dined alone together at long tables and
drank red wine. The rain arrived just as dinner started,
and they lowered the striped awning to create unbearable
intimacy. Later I watched you sleep, listened to you breathe,
knowing even then that this could not last forever,
that nothing lasts forever.
And so, I create you to accompany me
through these days when memory is so fierce
that I find myself unable to breathe,
except while listening to Tchaikovsky.
You must hear it too.
Publishing “The Warrior’s Stance” was not the end of Charlene’s tribute to Laura’s work. She then wrote “The Warrior’s Duet,” a two-character play that added her own grieving voice to the mix.
Her friends at Hillcrest’s ion theatre first brought the play to life, staging a reading in 2011. It then went on to a full stage production at the inaugural San Diego Fringe Festival by Circle Circle dot dot in 2013. So many people were turned away from the three-night sell out, Katherine Harroff, artistic director at Circle Circle dot dot, staged it again at White Box Theatre in Liberty Station a few months later. Here’s hoping they bring it back again soon.
Next came internationally known composer Jake Heggie’s interpretation, “The Work at Hand: Symphonic Songs for Cello and Mezzo-Soprano,” which set Laura’s poems to music in 2016, delighting her mother to no end.
After that day at her house, Charlene and I often met for breakfast on Thursdays at Crest Café in Hillcrest; chatted on the phone or via email about her latest endeavors or trips; hugged when seeing each other in passing at one venue or another; and we were chosen table mates year after year at our annual work Christmas party. Her booming laughter always elevated me and motivated me to encourage it.
I had always wished to attend a show along with her over the years; and we finally made tentative plans to travel north to Moonlight Amphitheater in Vista, where Heggie’s interpretation of Laura’s work would be performed. Unfortunately, Charlene took her fall that same week.
“On behalf of Mom, thanks to all of you for being her friend,” her son Chuck’s post to the Critic’s Circle continued. “If she could say so herself, I am sure she would. Perhaps not everyone realizes it, but theater, art, and her friends and colleagues were everything to mom. She treasured all of you, your theatrical endeavors, fellow critics and writers, and all of you who shared her love of artistic endeavors. I don’t think mom had a single regret in life, other than the fact her daughter preceded her in death … the greatest love in mom’s life (in addition to her daughter) was the performing arts and you, all of her friends and colleagues. She’ll miss you as much as you miss her, always.”
I do have many regrets when it comes to Charlene; I wished I’d spent more time with her. But I am grateful for the time and impact she has had on me.
A Mary Oliver quote she attached to her email signature always inspired me, and sums her up outlook on the world. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Join me and the entire arts community to celebrate Charlene’s life, Monday (of course), Oct. 16, at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. One of her favorite actors, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, will emcee. Details are in the sidebar. RSVP is required.
—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local theater community reacts
That was the only word typed on a Facebook post by ion theatre on Sept. 20, along with a link to Charlene’s obituary from The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Heartbroken is exactly how most of the San Diego arts community feels at her loss. I reached out to several in the community who knew her well and saw many more tributes to her, both large and small, on Facebook.
—Claudio Raygosa, founder, executive artistic director, ion theatre
We first met when I founded Iris Theatre in 2003. Charlene was among the first people in town who reached out and welcomed our fledgling group to the mix.
Glenn and I spent some time communicating with Charlene during Laura’s fight. We both have very close connections to the illness and the shadow it can cast in people’s lives. Through emails, a couple of shared meals, some laughs, some tears, we came to encourage Charlene to explore the potential theatricality of her and Laura’s poetry. She was already thinking along those lines, I believe, so we offered to do an “in-house” reading of a curated collection of their combined work.
It turned into the very first incarnation of “The Warrior’s Duet.” It proved a shining and healing moment for her and we were grateful and privileged to have lovingly given the piece its first home and breath of air.
[She] was energized a few times by plays she saw at ion. She told us constantly that our work “rocked” her in ways she couldn’t always explain. We knew she’d been “rocked” when she’d buy a ticket to come back and see a play at ion once or twice more after having reviewed it. This happened frequently, but she especially responded to our “Trojan Women,” “The Little Flower of East Orange,” “Bent,” “The Normal Heart,” and “Angels in America.”
“Song of Extinction” was a particular favorite of hers … sadly, it was a play about a son immersing himself in his music as he’s losing his mother to cancer. I could see why Charlene was so connected to that piece.
It’s difficult to share just one favorite memory of Charlene, but I can say this: I will never forget the sound of her voice. Whether backstage, or rushing around seating a house or doing one of the myriad tasks we do as theater-makers, when I would hear Charlene’s beautiful, halting, viola-kissed voice in the crowd, I was assured there was at least one person there ready to experience theater on a deep and intoxicating level — and it made it feel worth it. It’s why we spend so much time, care and heartbreak doing what we do. She got that.
—Glenn Paris, producing artistic director, ion theatre
I first met Charlene in 2006 when Claudio and I were producing at our newly built New World Stage, which was at Ninth Avenue and E Street across from the old library. I was kind of new to San Diego, having come here to be the development director for the REP. Charlene had been following Claudio’s work for some time, and he and I had recently begun dating and making theater together. When she and I almost ran over each other at New World Stage, she teased out at me, “And I thought you were just the squeeze!” (I was by then ion’s producing artistic director).
After that, we became good friends and would chat and catch up when we’d see each other at Crest Café or she’d interview Claudio and me at her apartment (she once donated an armchair we used in our production of “Lydia” by Octavio Solis) – or in the lobby at Urbn Cntr. Once in a while, I’d see her drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, and she and I were guests among others at Bill Purves and Don Schmidt’s Fourth of July party at their beautiful home in La Jolla one year.
She was a major force in San Diego theater — devoted, compassionate, and driven. Once she knew you, she demanded your loyalty as a friend and always expected the very best of you as an artist; it was “something unspoken,” her subtext. At the same time, she was supremely gentle and sweet. She was that rare friend and spirit and a relentless advocate for the arts. She was one of the most objective critics in San Diego.
I will miss her terribly. There is now an empty place in the heart of San Diego theater.
—Jennifer Thorn, executive artistic director, Moxie Theater
I adored Charlene. She took my work seriously and that felt like an honor. San Diego theater will truly feel her loss for a long time. I know MOXIE’s lobby will never feel the same without her in it.
In her own words from her book of poetry “Winter Roses,” which I will always cherish:
“You asked me for a legacy, which I alone could give: My practicum for living, some truth by which to live. I have no wisdom to impart: no formula contrived while stumbling through my life so far has managed to survive.
I muddled through when anguished, persisted when in pain; and if I were allowed the chance, would do it all again.
My son, you do me honor in thinking me so smart that I could pass as intellect what we both know is heart. There is no gift to leave to show you how to live. I only know of loving, and that to you I give.”
—Katherine Harroff, artistic director, Circle Circle dot dot
When I first started my production company Circle Circle dot dot in 2011, Charlene was one of the only local critics who really prioritized attending our projects as they came up. We definitely had support from the press, but Charlene made sure to get to every show, every reading, fundraiser, meet-up, anything she could come to. She came. And on the rare occasion she couldn’t come, she would buy tickets to support us anyway, and even though we would have always comp’d her for our shows, she never asked for a free seat. She wanted us to know that she really supported our company’s mission and loved the work we were doing.
One day she sent me a draft of her script, “The Warrior’s Duet,” a piece she developed from the poetry of her daughter Laura who had lost a battle with cancer.
What I found with “Warrior’s” was a precious, personal and beautiful work of bravery and love. I was honored to direct a dance-theater adaptation of the text along with local choreographer Anne Gehman in 2012 to much critical acclaim. It was impossible not to be moved greatly by that piece.
Charlene was one of the first and longest advocates of my work as an artist in San Diego and I am forever grateful for the support and confidence she instilled in me at that fledgling time. I have been devastated in the loss of her. She was a profound and important presence in the arts community here. Her voice and heart will be deeply missed.
—Edward Wilensky, director of media relations, San Diego Opera
I’ve known Charlene for 18 years, first when I worked at La Jolla Playhouse and then for the past 17 years here at the opera where she was the main critic for Opera News Magazine.
Sometime early in our professional relationship, she became something else, she became a dear friend. I think once you got to know Charlene, whoever you are, you couldn’t help becoming her friend; there was something infectious about that smile and that twinkle of mirth in her eyes, like the two of you were in on some secret joke.
Charlene was a fair and discerning critic and writer, but more so, Charlene was a champion of the transformative power of the arts. She believed it could elevate us to greatness, and more importantly, heal us in times of need; something she found solace in herself, creating art after the loss of her daughter.
Charlene was tireless, as 40 years her junior, I had trouble keeping up with her. She was supportive and nurturing of new talent — she was everyone’s biggest fan — and her support bloomed into meaningful friendships with singers and composers from around the world.
While I was able to see Charlene in her final days, I will always remember her laugh, more a guffaw, that came from the bottom of her heart, and was filled with so much merriment and joy, and comfort of being in her own skin. She is missed. She will be missed. While I was not yet ready to say goodbye I know she at peace, at rest, and of all people I know, she surely earned it.