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Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Jun 30, 2011

Remembering Marvin Gelfand

by Jenifer Hixson, Senior Producer

The Moth lost a dear friend and storyteller this year.

Marvin Gelfand first showed up at StorySLAM in January of 2002. He was hard to miss, an older gentleman with a shock of white hair, dark glasses and a cane. When his name was picked from the hat, he stood up and requested an elbow to help guide him up on stage. And that’s when we first heard, in his quavering but authoritative voice, our first unforgettable Marvin Gelfand story.   Marvin wore many hats in life. He was an economics professor at UMASS for a time, husband, father, political activist, literary critic, speech writer and, later in life, a tour guide – especially impressive because due to macular degeneration. Marvin was legally blind.

He must have been a wonderful tour guide…Every time his name was picked from the hat (23 times over 9 years) he took the audience on a visual and emotional ride through his life, which spanned nearly 76 years and was the history of Williamsburg, New York City and America. He remembered the shape of old neon signs and the smells of markets long gone, the sound of the crowd at a boxing match and taste of his mother’s brisket. He brought us there.

Our StorySLAMs are a competition and when Marvin’s name was picked from the hat, all the competing storytellers would collectively groan and lose heart.  They’d think, “Gelfand is up. We’re all done for. He’s going to win.” They were often right. The audience adored him.

Marvin was grouchy and hilarious and sentimental. He helped us imagine things of the past, and gave us context for some of the most important moments and characters and places in recent history. The Japanese Internment, the McCarthy era, Jackie Robinson, Cassius Clay and his change to Muhammad Ali, Mayor Lindsay, Jewish Harlem and, often, the music of George Gershwin. The younger slammers didn’t stand a chance. Marvin had YEARS of experience and material, and the perspective to make the stories work. He was a raconteur.

In a 1999 Daily News article about his guided tour business, Marvin said, “Leading a tour is practicing the fine art of an undimmed and romantic re-creation of a time and a place, and the people who lived there.” And this is exactly what Marvin did on our stage for nearly a decade.

Here’s Marvin telling one of his many stories at The Moth in 2002:

Marvin, we will miss you. Thank you for your memories and the magical way you shared them.

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