RIP, Murray Ross: Requiem for a friend

Murray Ross left an indelible legacy in his 41 years at TheatreWorks.

Do you know that Murray Ross is in hospice at Penrose?" a friend asked last Tuesday morning. I didn't pay much attention — it couldn't be true.

Murray Ross had more life force than any 10 people — so alive, so generous, so joyful, with so much still to do.

But it was true. Murray died that same morning at 74, social media exploded and the city mourned. His was a life to admire, to emulate and to celebrate. He was survived by his wife, Betty Ross, and four sons.

Ross came to Colorado Springs in 1975, founded TheatreWorks and built it into a nationally celebrated professional theater company with its own facility and staff. He taught thousands of students, entertained tens of thousands of Colorado Springs residents, and lifted a hundred thousand hearts.

Absent Ross, Colorado Springs wouldn't have had "Shakespeare in the Park" — and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs would not be about to open its ambitious Ent Center for the Performing Arts.

"He was the linchpin for the arts," said actor/director/producer Eve Tilley, whose own illustrious career in local theater paralleled Murray's. "Without him, without Murray and his crazy ideas, we're leaderless."

"He was the teacher, educating Colorado Springs about the arts. He was one of the last of the Old Guard, the original creators."

And while I wasn't there at the creation, the first act was barely underway in 1981 when I pulled into the little city of my birth, returning home after 23 years. I was 40, broke and unemployed, fleeing the violence and turmoil of Miami.

I just wanted a safe, peaceful place to raise the kids and carve out a niche in the community. Old friends had told me that Colorado Springs had changed and that young people were remaking the city.

"You can go home again," said my old pal Kathleen Collins. "You'll love it — just wait!"

In the weeks after we settled into a rental, Kathleen introduced us to some of the difference-makers, including her next-door neighbors on Tejon Street, Murray and Betty Ross.

They were amazing — smart, funny, worldly, liberal and charismatic.

What were they doing in Colorado Springs?

"While studying at the British Museum," Murray told me in a 2015 interview, "I saw the job offering at UCCS for a professor to teach Shakespeare and start a theater program. I thought that would be me — and it was."

When he showed up in 1975, UCCS wasn't what he had expected.

"It was basically a broken-down old building at the end of a dirt road," he said. "There was no money to do anything, so we were free to do whatever we wanted."

Ross conceived TheatreWorks as a performing arts group that would link the fledgling University of Colorado branch campus to the city. The new venture had no budget, no performance space and no performers, but Murray was undaunted.

"It began with a production of an obscure Swiss play in the basement of the cancer ward at Penrose Hospital," Murray recalled. "Then, step by step, we built a theater company that is now one of seven professional theaters in the state. We've had great talent, and great support from both the university and the community.

"We've had lots of enthusiasm, considerable patience, and we've gone to work and play every day."

Given free rein, Murray's spirit soared. According to his UCCS bio, "he has directed, adapted and created over 100 works for the stage. Original stage plays include Monkey Business, The Last Night of Don Juan, The Lady of the Camellias, Dar al-Harb and I Am Nikola Tesla. He has written stage adaptations of Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey, Plato's Symposium, Treasure Island, Venus and Adonis and several versions of A Christmas Carol. He has directed original theater projects (Peer Gynt, The Tempest, The Bourgeois Gentleman) with orchestras in Colorado Springs, New York, San Antonio, Phoenix and Cincinnati. Recent productions include Mary Stuart, The Seagull, The Merchant of Venice and The Lost Boys."

Murray's "crazy ideas" made for memorable productions.

"He did A Midsummer Night's Dream in Monument Park below the Fine Arts Center — I think it might have been the first season," Tilley recalled. "Tommy Kramer played Puck. He was about 16, he was a gymnast and he swung down from one of those tall trees on a rope to the stage — no one had ever seen anything like it."

The location had its problems, though. Coal trains periodically rumbled past during performances, but the show went on.

"I'm sure that the streets around The Globe [in 16th-century London] were noisy too," said Murray after a performance in the 1980s, "but so what?"

"It seemed as if anything was possible in those days," said Collins, who collaborated with Ross dozens of times during her years at the Colorado Springs Symphony.

"We built the Pikes Peak Center, paired Shakespeare and the symphony, went on the road to a dozen cities, raised our kids, had great parties and Murray was the ringleader — he had this wonderful sense of gratitude and play.

"We were leaving a funeral once, and he said, 'I don't want one of those "died after a lengthy illness" obits.' So I guess he got his wish — 17 days."

"I was a student under Murray Ross and worked alongside him for years," Amanda Mountain posted on Facebook. "To be in his orbit was always intoxicating, sometimes infuriating. He was demanding in the best possible way. When you had a conversation about any topic with Murray, he expected you to have an opinion, well conceived and articulated, and he always rewarded that exchange with passion, attention and vast intelligence. ... There is no one else like him nor will there ever be. He was one of a kind and he made the world a better place. He leaves a legacy forged not only by tangible accomplishments, but by the lives he has nurtured. I'm so grateful to have known him."

So goodbye, Murray, dear old friend. You showed us how to have a large, satisfying life in Colorado Springs. You knew how to fill a house — and I know it'll be SRO at your memorial service (5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, at UCCS' Gallogly Events Center).

And like everyone there, I'll hope that it's a midwinter night's dream, that you'll dance out on the stage and announce the new season and make fun of us for being so easily deceived.

"It is certainly not then — not in dreams — but when one is wide awake, in moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle tower," wrote Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory!

"And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one is looking in the right direction."