Goodbye to the Clown

The title of this blog may sound demeaning when you consider that this is a reflection on the life of an amazing person.  I chose to call it that because for many people that went to school with him, Ralph Alvarez was the class clown – the one mimicking Mr. Heil, the semi-permanent substitute we had for a while our junior year, the one who ran through a pep rally in full Jerry Lewis style, or the one drawing a mildly inappropriate cartoon that made a comment on the conditions at school.

I was quite shocked when I heard of his passing.   When I shared this news with friends, they also were quite taken aback.  We always wondered what had happened to Ralph, and now we find out he has passed and we  have no way to reach out to him to tell him how he touched our lives.

We all have our wonderful memories of Ralph.  When I asked for people to share their recollections, most people recalled what a great talent he was.  He went to state finals with his rendition of “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot.   Anyone that ever saw him perform pantomime in Speech competitions were enthralled with his precise and very effective movements.  I can still recall his interpretation of a Charlie Chaplin piece, “The Great Dictator” which just gave you the chills.  Even if you were not familiar with the movie, his pantomime told the story in an incredible way.

Many of us saw his wonderful cartoons and caricatures.  He did a parody of “The Exorcist” which he called “The Abortionist” which was drop dead hilarious.  My one regret is that I did not get to hold on to a sketch book that I had of his with pages and pages of his drawings.    He came by my office one day, about 10-12 years after graduation, and asked if he could have it back to use as a portfolio of his work.  Of course I gave it to him, but I honestly wish I had made a copy.

He had a unique way of punching through things that were too serious.  We once had to perform a record pantomime in class as part of a project.   He and I had done “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” by Cheech and Chong which he nailed.  Most of his record pantomimes were so funny you didn’t realize how well he was mastering the recording. Our speech teacher, Miss Griffing, told us all we had to do a serious song lip sync, and she made sure that Ralph got the message that this was strictly serious, no kidding around.

We did not know what to expect.   Curtains opened, and he sat there in a chair, with a smoking jacket, holding a pipe, looking all sophisticated.  The song was “This Guys in Love with You” by Herb Alpert.  Word for word, line by line, he lip synced that song and he had us in awe!  He was doing it!  Playing it straight.  Expressing every emotion that is in that song.   Until . . . it came to the part of the song where there is a short trumpet solo.  Without breaking character, he held the pipe to his mouth, and pretended he was playing the solo on his pipe.   We lost it.  We were rolling on the ground  in laughter.  When the solo was over, he went back to playing it straight and really showed us how to do it.  We expected Miss Griffing to be quite upset.  She just shook her head, smiled, gave him an A, and went on the next student.

I think Miss Griffing had it in mind that she was going to make Ralph be serious at some point in his life.  It was no secret that Ralph did not want to wear our bright orange graduation robes for our various Senior activities.  If I am not mistaken, she either bought his robe for him or had it made available to him, which she forced him to wear at our Senior assembly.    Ralph had a serious part to read as part of the ceremony.  He was given  his lines, and told to say those lines and nothing else.

The day of the event came, we all did our part, and it came time for Ralph to do his speech.    He came to the podium, stood there silently for a few moments, and then said, to the entire crowd assembled there, “I feel like a spokesman for Sunkist oranges.”   Of course we all lost it, and I will never forget the look on Miss Griffing’s face – a combination of anger, laughter, and resignation.   He then went on and did his portion of the program perfectly.

One of his dearest friends, Pat Grissom, mentioned that Ralph had a photographic memory.  I never realized that, but now I understand how he learned his lines (and everyone’s lines) so quickly.   He was also quite smart.    Pat mentioned in his recollection that he and Ralph were a debate team at El Paso Community College, and in one tournament they beat the #1 ranked team in the nation from USC.  Apparently Ralph did his argument on school reform in his Vincent Price voice.

We all expected at some point that Ralph would have been a successful artist or performer.  For whatever reason that never happened.   But to consider his life a failure would be to shortchange him as a person.  Ralph was a kind dear friend.    He was always so positive, even when things around him weren’t always good.

When he came to pick up his sketchbook, he found out that I had just gone through a divorce.  His words of encouragement and understanding meant the world to me at a time I was having a difficult time.

A story about him was shared with me by my friend and primo Joe Alanis.  Joey and Ralph were neighbors and grew up together.  He mentioned that he could never get Ralph to give up his street shoes to play ball, but he knew every word on every George Carlin album.   (My first instance of hearing about Al Sleet the Hippy Dippy Weatherman was from Ralph, not the record)  Anyway, Joey mentioned that the only one of his classmates that gave him  a graduation present was Ralph.  It was a copy of Winnie the Pooh that belonged to Ralph, and he presented it to Joey with a personal inscription which is too personal to share.    That is the Ralph I knew.   That is the Ralph that those of us who had the pleasure of being around him will remember.  I am embarrassed that I lost touch with him, and that I never said these few short words I’ve written here face to face.

This story is also called Goodbye to the Clown because that is the name of a play that most of us that were in Speech and  Drama are familiar with.  The imaginary clown in the play helps the young girl get through the trauma of the loss of her father.    Ralph was that way in a lot of ways.  His humor, his kindness and his caring helped carry us through school and those difficult emotional times that we call high school.  He never let us get down and he certainly never let us take ourselves too seriously.

Thank you Ralph.  May you rest in peace, and may you make the angels laugh.

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