February 6 – Happy Birthday Bob Tolson

btolsomThe late sixties were certainly the golden years of Bert DeRose’s career as this town’s outstanding producer of both AHS plays and City Recreation Department sponsored summer productions. A big reason for that was an amazing assemblage of young talent that seemed to congregate on High School hill all at the same time. These were tremendously gifted teenagers, who with DeRose’s expert tutelage sang, danced and most importantly acted in front of packed auditoriums as if they’d been doing it professionally for years.

One of the most versatile of these performers was today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant. Bob Tolson was a hard-working quick-study whose breakthrough role was the lead in DeRose’s 1967 production of Oliver. I never missed these plays as a kid and Tolson’s outstanding contributions were a huge reason why I felt they were as good as any ever presented in a high school auditorium.

This guy always impressed me with the effort he invested in selling his character to the audience. Even though its been almost 50 years since I last saw him perform, I can still remember the way he made great use of facial expressions, especially the way he conveyed emotion with his eyes. Although he didn’t have a great singing voice, he used the one he had very effectively and you looked forward to hearing him sing. His strength was his dancing. Back in Tolson’s day, DeRose used AHS Band Director Robert Kent Kyler as choreographer for his productions. Kyler happened to be an excellent dancer himself and he really challenged the cast with some intricate moves. While everyone struggled to learn them, Tolson ate them up.

NewVassiIn addition to Oliver, some of his roles included Og the Leprechaun in Finnian’s Rainbow, Peterson in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and the narrator Minstrel in Sleeping Beauty. He was superb as Riff, the leader of the Jets in West Side Story and his dance number  with Debi Swart in that production was a show stopper. He was also an unbelievably good Scarecrow in DeRose’s smash 1968 production of the Wizard of Oz (although my personal favorite was the guy who played the Cowardly Lion.)

I recently learned that Bob’s life after high school was not without struggle and he passed away much too young a few years ago. If I could, I would thank him for all those great performances he gave our community so many years ago. They were truly special. May he rest in peace.

 

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