Beloved Quad City Music Guild Director Dies Suddenly on Sunday
In an unrelentingly awful year, which has seen the Prospect Park theater in Moline go dark for the first time since 1949, the Guild family endured another bone-crushing loss Sunday, as Williams (a veteran director) died suddenly from a massive heart attack at age 61.
“We are all in shock. It will take some time for the loss to become real,” longtime Music Guild volunteer Cathy Marsoun said Sunday night. “Bob brought so much to Guild. First, his great theatrical skills as both a director and designer. He knew how to put together a great team and a great show.
“He also was terrific at seeing skills in people and often invited new people to be on his directing staff,” she said. Cathy and her husband Bill (another longtime Guild director, designer and backdrop artist) knew Bob since he started at Guild in 1976, while in high school – Williams went to Moline, and she was at UTHS.
“Bill tells about this young kid just showing up one day and saying he wanted to learn about theater. Bill put him to work building and painting sets and that was that,” Cathy said. “Within a few years, he was designing and directing at Music Guild. Bob loved Guild and encouraged everyone to get more involved and to stay involved year after year.
“He knew shows very well and shared his knowledge on play selection committees for many years. He worked in the ticket booth handling customers on sell-out nights,” she said.
“He worked in the costume shop and helped to make costumes too,” Marsoun said, noting he helped with the “Shrek” show in 2018, when her daughter Beth directed. “One of his jobs was to cut out the three bears’ fabric. It was brown fur that went everywhere when cut.
“He looked like a bear when he was done — his clothes totally covered in fur,” Cathy said. “His polo shirt and shorts were covered, not covered, caked, in brown fur. He tried to wipe it off with no luck. So he went home looking very much like the Papa Bear that he was.”
“But mostly I think of the beautiful shows that he created,” she said of many Guild favorites – “Beauty and the Beast,” “West Side Story,” “Les Miserables,” “Drowsy Chaperone,” “A Christmas Story,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Fiddler in the Roof,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and “Cabaret.”
“All of them were absolutely wonderful shows with large casts, large sets, and fun memories,” Cathy said. “Bob will be greatly missed by his Guild family.”
Youngest director in Guild history
Williams was the youngest director in QCMG history when he led “Fiddler On The Roof” at 23 in 1982, Marsoun said.
“I lost a friend of 45 years,” she posted Monday on Facebook. “That’s a very long time. Bob, Connie and I were Guild teenagers together. Guild teenagers from every generation know what that bond means.
“Bob leaves behind a legacy of great theater productions, memories and friendships. So many people are grieving today,” Cathy posted. “But more importantly, Bob leaves a family he adored. ADORED. He loved, loved, loved Jenny, Laurel, Emma, Aaron, Molly and Daniel.
“But (grandchildren) Eloise and Ezekiel took that love to a new and wonderful level. Everyone who knew him knew this because he showed it all of time. Our hearts break for each of you. You are all his proudest productions.”
About 40 friends of Williams gathered at the Prospect Park theater Sunday night to share memories about Bob, with his wife Jenny, and children Laurel, Emma, Molly, and Daniel. Veteran Guild actor Mark McGinn and his wife Connie were there.
Connie and Bob ran the box office together for about 20 years. “We all joked that Bob was Connie’s work husband,” Mark said. “I’ve had many good roles but whenever I’m asked what my favorite was, I answer ‘Drowsy Chaperone.’ (Bob directed and I played Man in Chair).
“He created such a great environment for the show that every time the curtain closed I just wanted to do it again,” Mark said, noting the only time he cried on a casting night was when Bob called in 2014 and asked him to play Jean Valjean, the hero of the sweeping musical, “Les Miserables.”
“Bob had a reputation for putting together amazing shows,” Adam Lounsberry (who was cast in six Williams shows) said Monday. “Shows that audiences enjoyed watching and that cast, crew, and pit enjoyed being a part of the production. One of the reasons for his reputation was because Bob had a talent for making things beautiful.
“He had an amazing ability to see things on a very grand scale and then focus down to details that fit in that big picture,” he said. “Not many can do that as successfully as Bob could do. This vision applied to the entire concept of the show. It could be costumes, set design, and casting.
“As an audience member of one of his shows, you could leave one of his productions and just be in tears because he brought together a wonderful concept and told an amazing tale,” Lounsberry said. “He was always proud of his casting and rightfully so. He knew how to put the right people in the right parts. Some directors will tell you this is exactly what I want to happen in this scene, ‘move here, do this gesture, say the line like so’.”
“He knew that he cast very smart actors in the roles and that they all could have ideas about how something could be done or added to a scene,” he said. “He might like it and say keep it, or he could tell you that it didn’t work with what the overall product needed to be. He would say that he would take all the credit for it all! And rightfully so.”
“So that all makes for a great experience that actors get to share in the 2 ½ months that it takes at Guild to start rehearsals to when the show closes,” Lounsberry said. “But the thing where I have benefited the most is, that I get to take all of those experiences, memories, and friendships and have them for the rest of my life. That is the real big picture. It is all because Bob brought us all together at different time and places. He would be most pleased (and justified) to take credit for giving all of that happiness to people.”
A big presence
Heather Herkelman – who played Belle in Williams’ 2019 “Beauty and the Beast” in which Lounsberry was Lumiere — posted Monday:
“As I grew up in QCMG, Bob was a big presence who was slightly intimidating in height but also in personality. He had an air of knowing what’s good, KNOWING shows, and just being THAT guy to impress. From 17 years old, I always knew I wanted to make him proud and that feeling only got stronger.
“I was SO thrilled to be cast in my first show with him and even more so last summer,” she wrote. “All my life, I have tried to find directors who would say it how it is and demand the most of his actors. I loved this about him. As a director, I loved his honesty, specific visions, and passion for every detail. As a person, I respected him even more.
“Bob was a perfect mix,” Herkelman said. “He was direct, blunt, hilariously cynical…and also compassionate, emotional, supportive and loving. Bob has been there for me through some of the hardest days in my life — outside the theater — and I think that speaks for how much he cared about the people. His support and love was crucial to me this year and he was a rock.
“He was like another parent to me and our special connection means the world to me,” she wrote. “I can still hear his voice and feel his big hug (he gave the best hugs). I will see him at the theater everywhere and I will miss him more than I can explain.”
Herkelman memorably played Anita in his 2017 “West Side Story,” and my Dispatch/Argus review then said the 1957 classic “tugs at the heartstrings with the supreme finesse of a harp virtuoso.”
“As profoundly touching and relevant as it was 60 years ago at its premiere, this modern retelling of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ provokes well-earned tears of joy, longing and pain,” I wrote. “Just as the original 1957 masterpiece aligned a constellation of artistic stars (director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and librettist Arthur Laurents), Guild director Bob Williams has assembled a dream team in a youthful cast bursting with emotion and talent,
with a top-notch orchestra and crew that bring this achingly beautiful tragedy to fresh life.
“That’s the thing about transcendent, timeless works of art — in the right hands, a new interpretation can make you see and hear them as if for the first time; their forceful impact and intellectual genius revealed anew, undiminished,” the review said.
My review of the popular Disney “Beauty” – a true stunner — said:
“There’s a lot going on in Music Guild‘s spectacular, heartfelt new production of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ And that’s not just because the big show boasts a cast of 35 and 20 in the orchestra pit.
“The emotional, musical and visual weight of the show is just as impressive when there are only one or two people on the Prospect Park stage.”
Missing a new grandson
Bob’s daughter Emma Benson (who has a daughter Eloise and is due to give birth any day to Zeke) posted Sunday:
“My sweet, wonderful, larger-than-life dad passed away suddenly and peacefully this morning. To know my dad was to love him. He’s goofy, talented, and the sappiest, most loving man in the world. He loved so, so fiercely.
“His love shines through Eloise, who adores her papa more than anything. He was so excited and ready to meet his first grandson and I can’t wait to see the ways my dad shines through Zeke,” Emma wrote. “My heart hurts and is heavy but I am so lucky to celebrate today and every day this amazing man I call Dad. I want to share some lyrics from our daddy/daughter dance at my wedding.
“I’ll never forget suggesting a few songs I thought we could dance to when my dad asked, with tears in his eyes, if we could dance to ‘Happy/Sad’ from ‘The Addams Family’ musical:
“Life is full of contradictions, every inch a mile.
And the moment we start weeping,
that’s when we should smile.
In every Heaven, you’ll find some Hell.
And there’s a welcome in each farewell.”
Bob’s son Daniel just celebrated his 24th birthday on Oct. 3, the day before he lost his father. Daniel posted:
“A world without my dad is a much worse world than the one we had yesterday. But the joy and love he brought during his time here will always make tomorrow’s world a better place. He’s my best friend and I love him a whole lot. I’ll miss him every day for the rest of my life.”
Bob’s daughter Molly posted:
“I could go on and on about how absolutely incredible, nerdy, loving, emotional, creative, and passionate my dad was.”
“He loved us all and loved his life so so much, and that’s all he ever wanted.”
His daughter Laurel (who just moved back home from California seven weeks ago) posted:
“He spent every day letting me know how happy he was I had come home. And he spent every day of my life making me feel loved. I’m shocked, heartbroken, in awe of the forces that brought me back home 7 weeks ago. And I’m so sad. But I’m resting tonight knowing he felt loved by me, he was loved by all who knew him, and knowing, without any question of a doubt, that I was loved with such a depth by my dad that I will feel that love every day that I have to navigate without him here with me.”
Better because of Bob
On Monday, Stacy Speidel-Holke posted:
“I was a Quad City Music Guild kid and then come back kid as an adult two decades later. I had the honor and privilege of being cast in two productions Bob directed – ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Les Miserables.’ For many reasons these shows — cast and crew — will forever hold a special place in my heart, and Bob was a big part of that. He helped me gain confidence on the stage. I am a better wife, mom, sister, daughter, and teammate from knowing him.”
Actress Shana Kulhavy posted a YouTube clip of the Act 1 closer to “All Shook Up” from 2009. She wrote of a “small tribute to a great, big presence…you were one of a kind; caring, funny, smart, intuitive, focused, kind, and the list goes on.
“This is the one way I know how to pay homage to a man who, second only to cherishing his family, loved and lived for the theatre.”
Jason Platt and his wife Erin (both Guild veterans) went to the impromptu memorial at Prospect Park, where they all shared stories, laughs and some tears.
“It was a blow to us all to hear the sudden news. He was such a staple to Guild’s stage, and touched so many lives,” Jason said Sunday night. “A man who loved his family tremendously. He will be missed for sure.”
In June 2019, for his “Beauty and the Beast” program note, Williams wrote that a patron once asked why Music Guild cast and crew bother to work so hard, when they’re not paid for their efforts.
“We bother because we enjoy the opportunity to step away from our lives for a few hours each night and create a world filled with song and dance and happy endings. We bother because we recognize the importance of art in a community and believe our contribution to the arts helps to enhance the quality of life in the QCA. We bother because each show provides us with one more opportunity to be together with friends and family and the common bond created with each of them through every production we share.
“And we bother because there is something about theatre and the arts that fills the soul and makes the dark parts of our days just a little brighter.”
We have had so many dark days in 2020 — which saw the cancellation and postponement to 2021 of Guild’s “The Secret Garden,” “Spamalot,” “Mamma Mia,” “Matilda” and “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn.”
Like his towering, tender theater colleague John VanDeWoestyne (who died in late March too soon), Williams was a big man with a big heart, a huge talent, and an infectious thrill to bring us big musicals. Music Guild again is a little darker, but so many in the area can take solace in the lovely light, energy and affection Bob brought us for so many years.