people leave an imprint on your life long after they
disappear. Others change your life without ever meeting
you. And still others affect whole communities just
by their very existence.
Many would say James Tolin did all of these things -
and some friends of his have decided to extend his imprint
far beyond his own reach. They produce an annual Memorial
AIDS Benefit production at the Kelsey Theatre on the
West Windsor campus of Mercer County Community College.
Each year, the event features a staged production on
the Kelsey Theatre stage, a catered cocktail reception
with live music and a silent auction with items donated
by celebrities as well as local and national organizations.
The tribute seems fitting on several levels: Tolin was
a gay actor (and, yes, a waiter, too); he was deeply
involved with the Kelsey Theatre; and he died of AIDS
in August at the age of 37.
" I don't think James
realized how much his friends loved him," says
Julie Miller, who was Tolin's roommate for several
years in the late 1980s. "He would be so
stoked to know his friends were doing this."
" This is the perfect memorial for him," agrees Joyce LaBriola, who
became acquainted with Tolin at MCCC.
"Cliche gay humor - he'd love it. In our home: Kelsey."
The event is coordinated by Tracy Antozzeski. Proceeds
from the performances benefit the Open Arms Foundation
of Hillsborough, a support group network that was established
at the medical offices where Tolin received treatment.
With funding supplied by Open Arms, an educational Performing
and Visual Arts project has been developed through Graffiti
Productions. And a scholarship at Mercer County Community
College is being created in James’ memory.
Tolin's friends agree the once-shy young man from Rocky
Hill came into his own on the local performing arts scene.
" James was always interested in taking the road less traveled," notes
Miller. "He loved art, all kinds of art, and the theater was his life.
" He found himself there."
He also found what would become a tight-knit group of
friends, whom he often referred to as his "chosen
Melissa Abrahams, who met Tolin when she was attending
MCCC as a student, said she was instantly drawn to his
" I was like static cling," she recalls. "James was a warm and
generous person, both physically and emotionally. He was very heartfelt in everything
" James had the biggest, most generous heart of anyone I've ever known," says
LaBriola. "When I first came to Kelsey, he took me under his wing. He was
very charismatic; just sitting in the audience during a rehearsal, he would draw
people until he was surrounded."
" We were all crazy in love with James' energy," admits Miller, with
He wasn't always that way.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Tolin was the oldest of three
brothers and was a quiet child who kept to himself. He
was so shy, his parents eventually took him for counseling,
where he was diagnosed as having poor gross-motor development.
After moving to Bound Brook at age 4, Tolin lived in
Rocky Hill for 28 years, graduating from Franklin High
School in 1982 and earning an associate of arts degree
It was during this time Tolin became an active member
in the Trenton-area theater community.
High energy and high maintenance were two common factors
in the life of Tolin, who was meticulous about his appearance.
One day, on his way to Kelsey to help build a set for
an upcoming show, Tolin was involved in a serious car
accident. Miller recalled that more than 50 stitches
were needed to repair the damage to his face. It was
a devastating blow to his self-esteem.
A much bigger blow came in 1992. After finding a lump
on his neck, Tolin called his mother and asked her to
accompany him to the doctor. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's
disease. Further testing also indicated he was HIV-positive.
was never a possibility," his mother says. "I
was shocked when the diagnosis came, but said to
myself, `Well, we just have to move on.' I trusted
that things would turn out OK. But it was a hard,
conscious decision not to discuss his disease."
Timothy Tolin, James' father, it was his deepest
fear come true. Not having accepted his son's
homosexuality, the two had been estranged for
lived in fear of HIV coming to our family," says
Timothy Tolin. "When he (James) called to tell
me about the cancer, I was so afraid it was HIV-related.
I kind of knew it was as soon as he told me. We were
still not really talking at that point, but he wanted
to let me know in case I wanted to be there for the
other testing that he was going to have."
Tolin always tried to make things easier for others and
this tenet held true when he finally told his friends
he was HIV-positive. A large group of friends had come
together to host a surprise graduation party for one
of their number and Tolin chose his moments.
Confronting several friends at once in the kitchen in
his usual upbeat manner, he announced that he did have
HIV, but that he was healthy and they should keep on
thinking of him that way.
it was a little more private.
" We were getting things ready for the party, but James asked me to come
out to the parking lot with him. He took my hands and said that he'd had some
blood work done and that he had tested positive. I crumbled. I acted selfishly
in my own grief and instead of comforting him, he was holding me and telling
me that everything would be OK."
For his treatment, Tolin turned to Dr. Ronald Nahass
in Hillsborough, where Debbie Winters had recently joined
the practice as a clinical specialist. Winters remembers
Tolin as "a real fighter. He was
our cat with nine lives. His eyes twinkled and that smile
was just all determination."
Tolin agreed to go on test drugs to try to lend his assistance
to the study of AIDS. Eventually, however, the disease
began to take its toll.
" It was very difficult when he started to show symptoms," says LaBriola. "I
felt so much pity and sympathy for him, but he insisted on joking all the time,
for his own benefit as well as his friends." Tolin went into a self-imposed
exile when he started to look sick.
It became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible,
for Tolin to remain on his own. He took a giant leap
of faith and called his father.
" He showed up at the door and he looked terrible," says Timothy Tolin. "He
was so thin and his eyes were just dark circles. He was broken. I knew I couldn't
support him financially in his own separate household. I talked it over with
his brother, Joe, who was living with me at the time and Joe said, `We'll make
it work, Dad.' That was all it took."
One of the last times his friends saw Tolin in public
was at a holiday party at Antozzeski’s home.
LaBriola recalls Tolin showing up tired and gaunt, but
his spirits were still high.
" He was laughing and being silly and funny, just like he'd always been.
No matter how sick he was, he couldn't hide his heart. But he was tired and I
was afraid of how fragile he had become."
When Tolin died, his family was amazed at the number
of friends who came to the funeral.
Shortly after the funeral, Antozzeski and friends decided
they needed to do something. They approached Phyllis
Tolin-Loudon about putting together the tribute in her
son's memory. The staff at Kelsey Theatre jumped on board
immediately, as well as several local community theatre
members. According to Antozzeski, all efforts are donated
each year including; the lighting, sound and set designs,
the poster artwork, the website development, performers
and technicians, the silent auction items, the catering,
the music, even the flowers on the tables are donated
to the cause by local organizations.
David Maurio, a friend of Tolin's and one of members
involved, believes it's only fitting that fund-raiser
will benefit the Open Arms Foundation, which operates
a variety of support groups for those afflicted with
HIV and AIDS and their families.
" I think the most important message of this entire production is to not
only take care of each other's needs, but our own," Maurio explains. "Don't
give up on someone. Don't make the mistake of seeing only the disease, because
if you look further than that, you'll probably find someone who's scared and
tired, but more full of life than anyone you've ever met before."
And, as his friends attest, Tolin's full life touched
" I'm just in awe that this is all happening because of him," says
Tolin's father. "I didn't know that he had this kind of devotion from others."