Help is On the Way 27: REAF's latest dazzling fundraiser

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday July 11, 2023
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An REAF benefit concert finale in 2019 (photo: Steven Underhill)
An REAF benefit concert finale in 2019 (photo: Steven Underhill)

Cast members from the new touring company of the classic musical "Les Miserables" will join other Broadway and cabaret stars at the Marines' Memorial Theater on July 16 for "Help is On the Way 27: Broadway & Beyond," the latest fundraiser from the Richmond Ermet Aid Foundation.

Founded in 1995 by Barbara Richmond and Peggy Ermet, two close friends who lost their only sons to AIDS, REAF stages annual concerts which serve as fundraisers for a variety of AIDS organizations. As always, this latest incarnation offers a mix of San Francisco and Broadway performers who will be raising funds for Project Open Hand, a non-profit which provides free, nutritious meals to people living with HIV and other critical illnesses. REAF's Small Emergency Grants Program, which provides small grants to people facing crisis situations, will also be a beneficiary.

Ken Henderson, REAF's Executive Director  

One of the motivating factors in staging these fundraisers is what Barbara Richmond was told when she was visiting her son John in the hospital before he died. A nurse thanked Richmond for visiting her son, stating that many parents did not visit their sick children after finding out that the child was gay and had AIDS. Upon hearing this Richmond felt that she had to do something for those who were ill. The "Help is On the Way" concerts have proven to be particularly popular with Bay Area audiences, raising thousands upon thousands of dollars for those in need.

"When we started, we only expected to be doing these benefits for a few years and that we'd have a cure for AIDS and get on with our normal lives," said Ken Henderson, REAF's executive director and events producer, in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "We're actually in our 29th year but we aren't counting the two years during COVID. We did produce some virtual events during that time using footage from our 25-year history of events, but this is our 27th annual live gala. It seems rather surreal that we've been doing this for so long."

The late Carol Cook will be paid tribute at 'Help is On the Way 27' (photo: Steven Underhill)  

Cook and Jordan tributes
Over the years many luminaries have participated in the concerts, such as actors Carole Cook and Leslie Jordan, both of whom have recently passed on. Cook was a "Help is On the Way" stalwart who appeared year after year, making her last appearance when she was in her mid-90s. Jordan was an openly gay actor who is fondly remembered for his Emmy-winning run as closet case Beverly Leslie on "Will & Grace."

"Carole was our grand diva," said Henderson. "Carole's first appearance was in our third annual concert and she was such a hit we just kept bringing her back. She could go on and on a bit but her stories were always hilarious and the audience loved her."

This year's show will include a video tribute to Cook that will be somewhat different than what's been shown before. There will also be a tribute to Jordan, and Henderson is delighted to report that filmmaker/playwright Del Shores, who directed Jordan in "Sordid Lives," will be on hand. Shores will be introducing the Jordan tribute.

the late Leslie Jordan  

"Leslie was my friend, my muse, for 37 years," Shores said. "We were family. He heard my lines exactly as I heard them. He elevated my work, made my life and career better. I miss him daily."

Shores shared a particularly heartwarming story about Jordan that took place in 1995 when they were doing Shores' first play "Cheatin'" in Kansas City. They were having a Christmas Eve breakfast at a diner where they were served by a single mom who had three kids to support. Jordan asked her if she and the kids were going to have a big Christmas. She responded with tears in her eyes, saying that there was no money for gifts that year. Jordan insisted to Shores that they tip her $50 each so she could give her kids a good Christmas. Jordan wrote on the check that she should spend every penny on the kids.

"We watched her from the car find the money," said Shores. "She collapsed in the booth, overcome with emotion. Leslie gave back his entire life, even before he had the money to do so. That's who he was."

playwright Del Shores  

Obligation to honor
Shores himself is delighted to be giving back by participating in "Help is On the Way." In addition to introducing the tribute to Jordan, he'll help with the auction that will be part of the show.

"We have all been affected by HIV/AIDS in some way," he said. "And we have also all lost those we love to life threatening illness. Compassion, love and care are important. Until there is a cure, we must all give back, serve. It is my pleasure and my obligation to honor so many."

Henderson also feels that it's important to continue helping those who are affected by HIV/AIDS.

"HIV is not the death sentence it was when we started but it's still not a disease you want to live with," he said. "Research has shown that people with HIV tend to develop age-related illnesses earlier on than the greater population. And it still can be transmitted to others and requires life-long medication to stay healthy."

Lisa Vroman at a recent REAF benefit concert (photo: Steven Underhill)  

In addition to the Cook and Jordan tributes, the show will include a tribute to the recently lost Tina Turner from Billboard recording artist Debby Holiday.

"While Tina never performed for REAF, there is a musical based on her life and Debby has a whole show based on Tina's music," said Henderson. "We think this show has something for everyone."

Other performers in the show include Broadway stars David Burnham, Marta Sanders, and Lisa Vroman. Cabaret artists Ava Nicole Francis and Leanne Borghesi will also be on hand. There will also be a silent auction in the Marines' Memorial lobby prior to the show.

The fun doesn't end after the final curtain comes down. There will be a VIP after-party at the Beacon Grand Hotel (formerly the Sir Francis Drake) after the show.

"This is a chance for VIP ticket buyers to get to meet and mingle with the cast," said Henderson, "get autographs and get to know them while enjoying wine, premium cocktails and wonderful desserts and savories."

'Help is On the Way 27: Broadway and Beyond,' July 16, Marines' Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter, 6:30pm silent auction in lobby, 7:30pm performance, 9:45pm after party at Beacon Grand Hotel, $39-$250 and up. www.reaf-sf.org

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