Beyond The Falls – John Farrell
John Farrell, a longtime theater, opera and classical music critic for the Los Angeles News Group, died Thursday May 7, 2015. He was 63.
Easily recognized in the arts community for his theatrical style, which often included long jackets and a top hat, Farrell was known as a true and committed lover of music and theater, sometimes riding the bus for hours to shows in various cities across the Southland. He looked for the best in each production without shying away from pointing out the flaws.
“In his heart he wanted theater to succeed. He looked for all the positives in what had been completed, but he didn’t hold any punches if it wasn’t there,” said James Blackman, executive producer and founder of the San Pedro Theatre Club.
Blackman last saw Farrell on Sunday during a performance for “Avenue Q,” one of the final theater reviews Farrell wrote for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and Daily Breeze after a career that spanned more than 30 years.
“I loved the last review,” Blackman said as he began to cry during a phone interview. “I was like, ‘Thank you for one last gift.’”
Farrell died Thursday afternoon, according to his younger brother Edward Farrell and Charlotte Irons, a longtime friend of Farrell’s who said she found him at his computer in her Sherman Oaks home about 4 p.m. Farrell had been staying with Irons.
“He was working on a story,” Irons said.
“He was hustling from Sherman Oaks to San Pedro and Long Beach and Cal State Long Beach, that’s where we met 41 years ago. He’s been hustling every weekend. He was always at the computer, always writing,” she said.
Born in San Pedro on Sept. 19, 1951, Farrell was named after his father, John Farrell, who was a postal supervisor. His mother Martha was a teacher.
Farrell leaves behind his brother Edward, two nephews, a niece and a great-grand nephew, his brother said.
His cause of death was unknown Friday, although he did suffer from diabetes, Edward Farrell said.
“He loved his work, he would always talk about plays and music,” his brother said. “He always wanted to be a writer. I believe he died writing a review. He died doing what he loved.”
Farrell attended San Pedro High School, where he graduated in 1970. He later attended Harbor College before transferring to Cal State Long Beach to study journalism.
Farrell wrote for the Press-Telegram, owned by the Los Angeles News Group, for more than 30 years.
His theater and opera reviews also appeared in other papers owned by the company including the Daily Breeze and Los Angeles Daily News and publications like the independent San Pedro-based newspaper Random Length News.
“John was an incredibly hard working person. I don’t think he ever turned down an assignment,” said Stephanie Cary, an arts and entertainment editor for the Los Angeles News Group who worked with Farrell. “His love of the arts was apparent in every story he wrote for us. He was a true champion of local theater, and that spirit and passion will be greatly missed.”
His reviews, even when not positive, were always respected, said Doris Koplik, director of media relations for the Long Beach Opera, which Farrell reviewed for years.
“I think he was very fair. He didn’t pander to the company in any way. He was an excellent reviewer and he knew his music,” she said. “I can’t think of any review where we can say ‘Why is he saying that?’ We might not have always agreed with his opinions, but they were there and they were always defendable.”
Al Rudis, a former Press Telegram editor who worked with Farrell for years and struck up a friendship, called Farrell the “ultimate bohemian” in the way he lived his life, since money and material possession came a far second to music, theater and writing.
“He was living hand to mouth but he was philosophical about it. He didn’t care as long as he was doing what he enjoyed,” Rudis said.
Blackman and Rudis said Farrell didn’t own a car and that he would often take the bus to review shows, but he always did it in style.
“He was very flamboyant in his dress. He always looked very theatrical with his dress — unusual hats, sometimes it would look like he was in costume for some play,” Rudis said.
His fashion was perhaps influenced by another one of his passions: Sherlock Holmes.
Farrell was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a literary society established in 1934 that’s dedicated to the study of Sherlock Holmes. Farrell’s given title at the society was “The Tiger of San Pedro.”
Before his death, Farrell had been working on a book made up of a compilation of his reviews, Koplik said.
He had recently contacted her about checking the Opera archives to pull hard copies of some of his old reviews.
In a final voicemail to Koplik from April, his last words to her were “there’s no rush.”
“he must certainly have been a giant” [WIST]
John Farrell, BSI (“The Tiger of San Pedro”) passed away in May at the age of 63. John was a beloved member of the Baker Street Irregulars and a well respected theater critic in California. We have a number of reminiscences about John from those who knew him.
From Sean Wright, BSI (“The Manor House Case”), longtime Sherlockian colleague and John’s co-author[Upon receiving the news of John’s death]: I was positive you were mistaken. I even called John’s cell phone and left a message on his voice mail telling him that some preposterous story about his demise was on Facebook.
John was a gifted writer and I don’t use that superlative lightly. He had a highly developed sense of language and an immense fund of knowledge. He was generous with his friends and helpful whenever necessary. He was the best man at my wedding and I owe my eyesight to him when I developed cataracts in 2007. Between jobs and without insurance, John, without asking, searched out the proper program and pestered me until I signed up, thus allowing me to find a doctor and be able see again. He was a friend in the truest sense of the word.
A native of San Pedro, California, born September 19, 1951, John began an informal scion society in the late 1960s, “The Tigers of San Pedro,” whose members all had to be from San Pedro. The scion reflected John’s quirky sense of humor. It was notable for refusing to have meetings. Since I lived in Hollywood I was not allowed to be a regular Tiger. I was, however, granted honorary status – which meant that I was never to be invited to any of the meetings the scion never held. [Ed. note: the top image shows John dressed as Don Juan Murillo, the Tiger of San Pedro, at the first Gasfitters Ball held by the Non-Canonical Calabashes in November, 1978.]
John was 6′ 2″and quite massive for most of his adult life. With his long brown hair and beard he was hard to miss. He enjoyed wearing a frockcoat in his role as drama critic. In his later years, he constantly wore a cut down top hat and he was never seen without a blackthorn walking stick. He had several, purchased during his journeys to Ireland and England. John had many Sherlockian friends overseas, perhaps most notably Thierry Saint-Joanis of the Sherlock Holmes Society of France.
John was not only proud to be an investitured member of the BSI – he received his investiture “The Tiger of San Pedro” in 1981 – and he enjoyed telling about how he was invested three times in the Praed Street Irregulars, the Solar Pons Society, due to the absent-mindedness of its founder, the late Luther Norris, BSI (“Monsieur Oscar Meunier of Grenoble”) in his position as Lord Warden of the Pontine Marshes.
John was one of the foremost Sherlockian scholars in Southern California, writing monographs for several Sherlockian periodicals as well as for the BSJ. Many local scions were pleased to welcome him into membership and his presence brightened many a meeting. Be sure to ask Jim about all the Sherlockian periodicals for which John acted as editor, among which, for a year, was The Sherlockian Meddler for the Non-Canonical Calabashes of Los Angeles.
Some 30 years ago, when Basil Rathbone’s library was being sold, John purchased it all, and donated most of it to Boston University’s Special Collections department – now the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.
John wrote, produced, directed and appeared in several movies with his friends spoofing various film genres: Both Shakespeare and mysteries with The Danemark Curse, musicals with John Farrell’s Watermusic, Bible epics with The Bible – Condensed and westerns with Ghost Rustlers – in which John, with memorable hilarity, appeared as “Utah Slim.”
St. Patrick’s Day was the highlight of John’s calendar. For over 40 years his annual Long Beach/Seal Beach St. Patrick’s pub crawl was a must, less for drinking than for collecting “swag” – pins, necklaces, t-shirts etc. – offered by breweries that day, the best distributed by Guinness Girls travelling through the area. An array of these pins festooned his soft tweed hat, jacket and vest.
A few years ago, most gratifyingly for us, a Long Beach restaurant even changed its name to “Moriarty’s” just for the day and passed out t-shirts with the name on it to commemorate the event. John was in heaven.
John was a font of operatic and music hall lore. His knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas was profound. His rendition of an old routine: “But I Didn’t Want My Cigar to Go Out” was priceless. Our version of “A Policeman’s Lot,” which we performed at a BSI cocktail party in 1990, is still well remembered by those who saw it.
Years ago John told me that, of all newspapermen, he most admired Bat Masterson, the former gunslinger turned sportswriter, but only for the manner of his demise. He died, John was fond of saying, exactly as a journalist should die: his body found in his office, slumped over his desk, after finishing his last article.
John ended his life the same way, dying of a sudden heart attack at his computer while writing one of his reviews.
From Charlie Power, John’s oldest friend, who knew him since the 6th grade
A mid-year move landed me in a new school in 1964 (6th grade), and I was assigned to share a desk with John Farrell. This resulted in my joining the Lightship crew. John started “The Lightship” as a mimeographed vehicle for his writings and those of the crew, so this is where he started his career as a journalist. After working on the paper, we would retire to the open alley by John’s house for our own form of soccer.
John was a great collector of books (particularly mysteries), walking sticks, hats and other things, most of which he had to put into storage because he ran out of room. I got him in the habit of reading electronic books, but he always preferred the old dead tree type.
As a freelance journalist specializing in cultural criticism, John was not wealthy, but was often the only critic to cover the amazingly active and avant-garde world of theatre and opera in the Los Angeles area, particularly Long Beach and San Pedro. I know he will be missed; he is unlikely to be replaced.[Editor’s note: this was taken from the comments section of John’s obituary in The Los Angeles Daily News.]
From Thierry St. Joanis, BSI (“Monsieur Bertillon”) of the Sherlock Holmes Society of France
John Farrell was my friend since 1993. I met him in Paris in May, on the occasion of the first annual meeting of the Sherlock Holmes Society of France, in the “salons” of a palace (Place de l’Opéra). Under the monumental crystal chandeliers of a Napoleon III ballroom, with walls covered by mirrors, I saw a giant explorer appear. John had just passed through the city, dressed as a Professor Challenger’s companion. I immediately felt that I would love this guy.
I knew John by reputation. Since his trip to the United States to participate at the BSI Annual Dinner, our mutual friend Jean-Pierre Cagnat told me about that “Tiger of San Pedro,” a kind of Californian Yeti, a giant who came down from the sky along a beanstalk, who made his living as a theater, opera and classical music critic for the Los Angeles News Group, probably attracted on the West Coast by the sound of a magic harp.For a thirty year-old French guy like me, this “Tiger” was America of my dreams and he made my dreams a reality.
John was an official representative of the BSI at the inaugural session of our club, in the auditorium of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, amid dinosaur skeletons. John “Challenger” was my Sherlockian godfather, one of the 3 Magi came from the ends of the earth with arms full of gifts.
He thus inaugurated my Holmesian collection with objects that now call the “Sherlockonneries” – objects of little use, sometimes very cumbersome, but also valuable – such as a ring marked with the seal of the Master. John brought all this bric-a-brac in his carry-on luggage:
- a decorated doormat showing a “Sherlock” dog as wide as the carpet of a large living room
- an edition of a rubber Hound of the Baskervilles to decorate a dog house
- red silk short pants, illustrated with Mickey Mouse dressed as Sherlock Holmes – which has since become the meeting Uniform for our own Sherlockian scion society we have created, “The Red Panties-League”
John was generous and gave everything he had, even if he did not have much. When he came to see me in Paris, he stayed with me in my living room reconstitution of Baker Street. I lived on the 5th floor … no elevator! We had almost an hour to climb the stairs. That gave us time to talk like concierges. Once at the top of my Everest, the base camp was tailored to fit the morphology of the Tiger (a king-size mattress on the floor). For him, it must have seemed that I lived in a hobbit hole where everything was too small, too low, too narrow. In the morning, John could not stand without help, so I reached out to lift him from the ground, and when he was on his feet, he could touch nothing except the stars. I understood why his shoes were never laced …
For a superman like John, daily life was not easy, but I’ve never heard him complain. He had the elegance of a gentleman, the hero of my books, and he knew how to put me in a position of comfort making my life always nice.
When John was there, I was quiet and safe. In New York, every time I came to participate at the BSI weekend, I remember moments of solitude spent on the sidewalk of the 44th Street in front of the Algonquin Hotel, intimidated, lost and uncomfortable with my “bad” English, surrounded by Sherlockians who do not speak French, until I saw the silhouette of my giant friend advancing, far out there on Times Square, wearing a top hat, a reflecting monocle illuminating his pleased eye. For a week, John was the friend of everyone, but I felt like the only one that counted. He taught me how and where to eat “the best BBQ in NYC” and that a good pint of beer had to be drunk at McSorley’s Old Ale House, this saloon with a floor covered with sawdust.
Together we toured the Holmesian world, from New York to Paris, London to Meiringen. And it is with him that I climbed the slope leading to the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss mountains, and we celebrated our arrival at the summit by improvising a duel with our sword sticks, before finishing by sharing a flask of whiskey, lying in the grass, me, a Mowgli resting her head in safe on the side of a tamed Shere Khan.
It’s simple: with John, I’ve never done anything ordinary.
My regret is that I wasn’t able to see more of him, as he lived in California and I in France. If we were less Sherlockian, we both would be richer, and we would have been able to see each other more often. But there was a continent and an ocean between us. So, with the help of our memories, we console ourselves with exchanges via the Internet until the day that John will come to spend several months at my home, in the French countryside where I live today.
The house is large and there are no stairs to climb to get to bed. He must come, I have no doubt or fear. It’s just a matter of time. It is what he said each July 14th, when John would send me his “Vive la France!” for the annual Bastille Day.
Look, it’s weird, here we are on the 13th of August and I have not yet received his 2015 “Vive la France!” greeting. John may have been a failure with the Internet – unless – my friend may have returned to the land of the giants, up there… Well, then I’ll have to find a magic bean to join him.
The game’s afoot!
Sketch of John by John-Pierre Cagnat