Ashland residents are recalling the life, magic and humor of their days in the 1970s with television personality Harry Anderson, who went on to fame as the wacky, lovable judge on “Night Court.”
Anderson died Monday at his home in Asheville, North Carolina, at age 65.
In 1971, a youthful Anderson and Rabbi David Zaslow of Havurah Shir Hadash put on a “Unicorn Magic and Other Follies” show at the Varsity Theatre and at then-Southern Oregon College. It was “an old-time vaudeville show with serious dramatic pieces, dancing, great music, all punctuated by Harry’s stage magic,” said Zaslow.
Directed by Anderson, they did skits from Buffalo Bill and Marat/Sade, with longtime Ashland musicians Paul Jenny as Marquis de Sade and Nolan Indecks on piano.
Anderson and Zaslow were housemates, new to Ashland, living on Valley View Road, and Anderson, already a skilled magician, was able to make a living doing acts at The Owl coffeehouse and Vintage Inn on Water Street, at SOC and at the Green Shows of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“He was enormously creative, a great talent, and he brought humor and storytelling, with touches of self-deprecation to his act,” said Zaslow. “His talent was so great and he was able to set up a great rapport with the audience. He helped usher in the modern era of magic” that became part of mainstream entertainment.
Anderson married and had two children with Ashlander Leslie Pollack.
Terrie Martin of Phoenix, a former journalist with the Mail Tribune, recalls doing a story on Anderson: “I spent a day in Ashland with him to write a story for the college paper in 1977. … He did a little street magic in front of the SOU student union and a magic show at The Owl. I’ll always remember him calling me out in the audience: ‘Pick a number between one and 10.’ I don’t remember my answer, but I’ll never forget his response: ‘Wrong. Take off your clothes.’ ”
Zaslow adds, “At the time I was an amateur magician, and he was beginning his professional career. We spent many hours sharing illusions and trying to outdo each other. He always won.”
Reading from the 47-year-old “Unicorn” playbill, Zaslow quotes Anderson’s words: “Friends, we’re not performers. We are Ashland people. We are human beings. We sing out. We dance with our kids. We laugh. We dream, and our dreams are too real to not let you know. We love you. We are you. And yes, unicorns are alive and well. Keep your eyes open.”
Anderson lived in Ashland from 1971 to 1976. He was Judge Harry Stone, adjudicating a string of oddballs, in “Night Court,” from 1984 to 1992.
The New York Times obituary notes that Anderson and his character both “wore colorful ties, were magicians at heart and were superfans of the singer Mel Torme, who made several guest appearances on (the show). Mr. Anderson delivered a eulogy at Mr. Torme’s funeral in 1999.”
Anderson also appeared on “Cheers,” “30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live” — and played the title character on “Dave’s World” in the mid-’90s. Despite Emmy nominations and acting acclaim, Anderson said he was never an actor, but really a magician.
Tributes appeared on Facebook Tuesday. One said “too young,” and another wrote, “He was such a gift to us.”
Michael Connors noted, “He was a tall young guy and he had a magic shop on the Plaza in Ashland. He was friends with my parents, and he would sometimes come over and perform magic tricks for customers in their gallery, Casa del Sol, at 82 North Main Street. He visited in later years. I remember him coming in to say hello after ‘Night Court’ ended. He was a kind and gentle man, and I enjoyed him on his TV shows.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.