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Essay, 12-2: Remembering
Bill Partlow, 1960-1996
By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2004 Chris Dohse
(Editor's Note: The
following was first posted by the Estate Project for Artists with
AIDS, a project of Alliance for the Arts, on
this page, in a group of testimonials organized by David
Gere. It was also read out loud at the New York Public Library.
Reprinted by permission of the author. Bill Partlow was an actor,
singer, dancer and director, and founder of the AIDS Theatre Project.)
Bill and I lived together
in an apartment near the university where we were both in acting
school, Wright State University on the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio.
Wright State's campus has a unique feature. The buildings are all
connected by underground tunnels, so that in Ohio's frequently harsh
winters students don't need to go outside between classes.
For Christmas in 1979
we both got roller skates. This was the height of the roller disco
fad and we were obsessed with Cher's contribution to the genre,
"Hell on Wheels."
A few nights after Christmas,
Bill and I were draped on the couch of our apartment, bored. It
was too cold to go to the bars so we thought it would be a great
idea to break into the deserted tunnel system (the school was closed
for the holidays) to try out our new skates. We got in somehow and
began flitting around.
Outside the costume
shop, on the basement level of the theatre building, we found a
gigantic heap of clothes. Unwanted donations apparently. We began
to try things on. We ended up in a couple of stale-smelling 1950s
housedresses, the kind of things Aunt Bea might have worn. Then
we found hats and purses to complete our transformations into frumpy
1950s housewives. On roller skates. We began to call each other
by our mothers' names. I became Phyllis Elaine and Bill was Mary
So off we skated into
the maze of tunnels to do a full lap of the campus in these outfits.
In a snowbound Ohio landscape. In 1979. In the middle of the night.
As we clung to each
other, bumped into walls (Bill wasn't so bad but my skating skills
were atrocious) and shrieked with laughter, we'd sigh and say things
to each other like, "Oh, Mary Ann, it's a trial on my soul." This
had become one of our favorite things to say to each other. We also
made frequent gestures like this (hand at neck), which we called
"clutching our pearls," or this (hand on head), which we called
"poofing" our hair.
Suddenly, we heard keys
jangling at the end of a corridor. We were trapped in the center
of a long straightaway, with no way to escape before being seen.
I gasped, "Whatever shall we do?"
Bill grabbed me by my
shoulders and manhandled me into a wild trajectory away from the
approaching guard. Pursing his lips, he advised, "Phyllis Elaine,
skate like a madwoman!"
This advice has proven
endlessly sound again and again when I find myself in dead ends.
Bill was an original. A spontaneous, generous, talented human being
whose courage and compassion never wavered. His memory irrevocably
As I skate like a madwoman
through my life, I smile to think of Bill, clutching his pearls
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