The Automatic Pilot story - part 6

Automatic Pilot, RIP
Automatic Pilot dies along with Tony.

AIDS was first identified in the summer of 1981, about the same tie as the national tour. People affected in San Francisco now numbered in the hundreds, including some of our acquaintances but none of our inner circle of friends. Years ago, we had written a song that was too nasty even for Automatic Pilot,. "Rimmin' at the Baths" was originally about amoebas and hepatitis. Later we added a couplet rhyming "sweet aroma" with "Kaposi's Sarcoma" but still never performed it. In the summer of 1984, Theater Rhinoceros announced a collaborative project addressing AIDS, and solicited participants including writers and musicians. We were ready to make our contribution to the effort; the song had found its home. We auditioned for director Leland Moss and joined the company. At Leland's request we wrote another song "Safe Livin' in Dangerous Times" to serve as an anthem, and participated in the show's overall development.

The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival opened in the basement studio of Theater Rhinoceros in September. Matthew sang lead and acted in many scenes. I played my electric piano live for the initial two week run and served as music director, sound designer and sound technician, accompanying some scenes on a miniature Casio keyboard. We also did parts of the show at various community events including the Castro Street Fair. After the initial run, it was obvious The AIDS Show had struck a nerve in the community and would most likely last a long time. For the second run which was extended, we reworked the show slightly. We went to a low budget studio to record all the song accompaniments and sound effects, and also made vocal demos of the songs. On opening night of The AIDS Show, Tony was in the audience. Soon thereafter, Tony began to get sick 1985 Automatic Pilot went into the studio for the last time in January, this time to Starlight in Richmond to remix Say Mongoose and Dream A Lot. We now had six songs complete - not enough for an album. We planned to continue, but Tony's health deteriorated. and the project came to a halt. The AIDS Show continued its run, and traveled to San Jose and San Diego. The task of running sound, while complicated, had become routine, and I trained another technician to take over. Matthew stayed on in the cast, which toured to New York and other places. The script including song lyrics was published in West Coast Plays. Plans were made to revise and remount the show. Unfinished Business: The New AIDS Show was slated to open the 1985-1986 season on the main stage of Theater Rhinoceros, co-directed BY Moss and Doug Holsclaw. A call was put out for other writers and actors to audition. Matthew and I wrote two new songs: Vaccine Day, which got in the show, and Cross the River which didn't. They also kept the two original songs. One other local composer submitted a half-finished song which was not used. Leland Moss got his friend Stephen Sondheim to contribute Not A Day Goes By originally from Merrily We Roll Along. They also got a new lead singer and a new music director, but kept Matthew on to do the posters. I did the sound design; this time we went into a professional studio to record the new songs. Music director James Followell produced the Sondheim recording and played piano; I did vaccine Day and a revised version of Safe Livin. The making of Unfinished Business was the subject of a documentary by Rob Epstein and Peter Adair which was broadcast on PBS and is still available on video. Tony did not attend this production; he died before it opened, on September 21, the same night we did the recording. John Selby also died in 1985. In subsequent years, Automatic Pilot members Tom Gschwind, Steve McDowell, Bill Schade and Mickey Martin also died.

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