Help Is On The Way... back! REAF's star-studded biannual benefit returns

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday August 2, 2022
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REAF's 20th anniversary concert in 2014. photo: Steven Underhill
REAF's 20th anniversary concert in 2014. photo: Steven Underhill

Sally Struthers, Debby Boone and a gay plumber walk into a bar.

If you happen to be a gay plumber, that's no joke. It's an experience you can have this Sunday night.

The bar is at the luxe Beacon Grand hotel (the reinvented Sir Frances Drake) and the occasion will be the afterparty for the 26th Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation (REAF) "Help Is On The Way" concert, the first to be held in person since 2019.

In addition to the artist formerly known as Gloria Stivic and the "You Light Up My Life" singer, at Marines Memorial Theatre around the corner from the hotel, the concert will feature Tony and Grammy winner John Lloyd Young, the original Frankie Valli in "Jersey Boys" on Broadway, Garrett Clayton, the former Disney heartthrob best known to non-tweens for playing gay porn star Brent Corrigan in the 2016 film "King Cobra," acclaimed jazz singer Paula West, and half a dozen other volunteer performers. None of the artists are paid for their participation.

Shawn Ryan in a 2017 REAF benefit concert. photo: Steven Underhill  

Since 1995, the Help Is On The Way shows have raised funds for local AIDS and hunger charities by offering ticket buyers the unusual opportunity to see eclectic collections of stars from stage, screen and television perform in a single night, and then to meet them over celebratory cocktails after the show.

Mingle, mingle little star
"The afterparties have always been such a fun part of the Help Is On The Way shows," said Shawn Ryan, the gay comedian and cabaret performer who has appeared in many of the REAF extravaganzas. "It's a chance to meet and talk to these artists on a whole different level. I think the performers enjoy it as much as the audience members."

Along with emceeing and performing a musical number Sunday night, Ryan will be honored for his years of service to REAF, having performed in their shows for 17 years. Theater and cabaret singer Leanne Borghesi will be similarly honored.

In a recent phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Ryan recalled the aftermath of his own first post-show hobnob with Sally Struthers, one of many repeat volunteers.

Leanne Borghesi in a 2014 concert  

"We had this nice chat. And then, somehow she found out the next time I was performing in LA, where she lives, and she came to my show. My mother, who was a huge 'All In the Family' fan, was also there. When Sally approached me and gave me a kiss hello, my mother was just floored."

Having attended a Help Is On The Way benefit as a fresh-out-of-college audience member before ever performing in one of the shows, Ryan, who also coaches young performers, says this weekend will present a sort of full-circle moment for him.

"One of my students, Ava Frances, who I've been coaching since she was nine years old, will be making her REAF debut."

Social distance and SoCal distance
Ken Henderson, the Executive Director of REAF, told the B.A.R. that the foundation is feeling the impact of the pandemic.

"We were able to do some online events over the past two years, but its not at all the same in terms of fundraising."

While Help Is On The Way is making a happy return, a second significant fundraising engine remains down. For years, a staple of REAF's benefit programming has been a series of intimate "One Night Only" cabaret performances by cast members of touring Broadway productions on dark nights during their engagements at the Golden Gate, Orpheum and Curran Theatres.

REAF Executive Director Ken Henderson, actress Michele Lee, and REAF producer Joe Seiler backstage at a 1990s REAF concert.  

Now, in light of the COVID breakouts that continue to wreak havoc among the theater community nationally, tour producers and performers are imposing protective restrictions on off-stage activities in order to keep these shows on the road. In any other year, cast members of highly promoted upcoming productions of "Oklahoma!" and "Moulin Rouge" would be likely do "One Night Only" REAF benefits. But for the time being, the curtain remains down on such "extracurricular" performances.

Another significant change at REAF is the relocation of Henderson and Joe Seiler, his partner and fellow benefit impresario, to Palm Springs.

"We'd been talking about Palm Springs over the years, but when the real estate market there started to spike during the pandemic we thought that we'd better go ahead and make our move."

In the desert, Henderson and Seiler have initiated a new model of fundraiser for REAF.

"We're doing ticketed house parties at these huge, fabulous homes that people love getting a chance to see. The homeowners agree to host the events and donate food and we bring in the booze and entertainers."

"We've already had two very successful events here," said Henderson. "The community is very accepting of us."

While acknowledging that there will "inevitably" be changes to REAF's Bay Area operations with his and Seiler's home base having shifted, Henderson says there are no plans to stop producing Help Is On The Way shows in San Francisco; Sunday night's marks the first to be planned from afar.

Help Is On The Way XXVI, Sunday, August 7. 7pm Concert and silent auction at Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St. 10pm after-party at Beacon Grand Hotel, 450 Powell St. $45-65 (Concert only); $150 and up (Concert and Afterparty)

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