In 1988, in the midst of an HIV/AIDS epidemic that took life after life in the arts community, Columbia dancer Carolyn Kelemen returned home after seeing an AIDS benefit in New York City and decided to take action.
“This was during the epidemic, when dancers were dying left and right,” Kelemen, now in her mid-70s, said. “I’ve been a dancer all my life. … I said: I’ve got to do something about this.”
Kelemen organized a benefit performance for Sept. 5, 1988, a cabaret mash-up of local performers who volunteered their time. Held on Labor Day, she called it “A Labor of Love.” The concert, which raised money for the Howard County AIDS Alliance, was held every few years until 2013.
“There was huge support for this, and the houses were filled,” Kelemen said. “People wanted to do something; and 25 bucks and you saw a phenomenal show.”
Larry Friedman, 58, who is a co-artistic director at the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts and who describes himself as “the luckiest guy you may ever have met,” said he performed in the benefit over the years not only for the cause, but to reunite with a tight-knit Columbia arts community.
“It provided us an opportunity to do what we love to do most, with those we love most, for a cause we all believed in tremendously,” Friedman said.
Performers, Kelemen said, leapt at the opportunity to participate. She told the Columbia Flier in 1988 that more than 150 people wanted to perform.
“In the musical theater industry, [the AIDS crisis] was really decimating,” said Ric Ryder, 56, a longtime Labor of Love performer who grew up acting in Columbia before appearing on Broadway. “So pretty much anyone would do anything they were asked.”
“I have goosebumps just talking about it,” Kelemen said of the effect AIDS had on her life. “It was just awful. I lost so many friends.” She, Ryder and Friedman all said they lost at least a dozen friends to the disease.
“When has there ever been a fatal plague that’s attacked one business, an actual business, more than anything else?” Ryder said. “AIDS attacked the arts community.”
A Labor of Love, participants said, was a way for that community to help Howard County AIDS sufferers, during a time when stigma, homophobia and fear made help scarce.
Kelemen said the benefit, held at Howard Community College, raised about $8,000 in its first year for the AIDS Alliance of Howard County’s emergency fund. It provided those affected by the disease with basic, immediate needs like taxi fare for doctors’ appointments, babysitting, food or prescriptions.
“At the time it was critical, because there was no funding,” Friedman said. “There were a lot of judgmental attitudes about what it was, where it came from. … Somebody with AIDS at that time, you were a pariah.”
Friedman said he remembers the audience being full of people who had AIDS and their loved ones.
“To talk with them at the end of the event — we had a reception afterwards — you got a sense of how profoundly important this was for them and how grateful they were,” he said.
Participants said that although there were a few murmurs of protest, the stigma that surrounded the AIDS crisis in the 1980s was mostly missing in Columbia.
“Absolutely there was stigma,” Kelemen said, “But to be honest with you I’m a person that, I just blast through that. People are people, and you’ve got to help your fellow artists and friends. We moved to Columbia because of that.”
While “A Labor of Love” was focused on a deadly epidemic, the show itself was a joyful event.
“It was such a crisis [for the entertainment community] that somber or sad really couldn’t be a part of it,” Ryder said “Dignity, yes. But there was some sort of unwritten rule that maudlin just wasn’t allowed.”
One year, Kelemen said, they did a concert version of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” and another year they performed “Follies.” Another year the stage hosted both a country singer and a ballerina. For his first benefit, Ryder said he sang “But The World Goes Round,” from the film “New York, New York” starring Liza Minnelli.
“We always had people who had a connection to Columbia,” Kelemen said. For Friedman, that was part of the draw.
“We love each other dearly,” Friedman said. “The only thing we probably love more than each other is taking in each others’ performance and being supportive of one another in that way. To be in the same place as these people, and to take in their performance, just to hug them and rage with them and reminisce with them and support them.”
Kelemen said that she stopped doing the benefit in 2013 because the combination of increased awareness and improved treatment options have made AIDS funding needs less urgent.
“That’s a big change in that now,” Friedman said. “I don’t think it’s as hard a reality when someone you know and love gets so ill. dman said. “We have learned whether it’s cancer, or AIDS, or liver disease, we’re fragile. We’re susceptible.”