Lines on the loss of Steve Manzino
My dear friend of twenty-three years, Steve Manzino, lost his battle with cancer on December 4, 2018. I am absolutely devastated, and my life will never be the same, but here is how I choose to remember him.
Steve Manzino—I called him Manzino, though, everyone in our group of friends did—and I used to have the strangest and most entertaining conversations, especially when we were prepping in our dressing rooms for whatever show it was we were acting in at the time.
“When I die, I just want people to get up and tell the truth about me.” He shrugged into the tweed jacket he was wearing in his role as Frank in Educating Rita. “Because I hate this, you know, the guy’s an asshole but then he dies and suddenly he’s an angel. It’s just ridiculous.”
The comment was all in fun, of course—death was so far away from us back in 1996—but I promised him I would. And then this latest comment, word for word the way he’d uttered it, went into whatever journal I had going at the time, joining all of his other random bits of off-kilter wisdom.
Eventually, that—and a few other declarations—would end up in my fiction.
Now, sadly, art has imitated life, and I am tasked with following through on what always seemed like what would be a forever-unrealized promise.
When Manzino got sick, he did not go gently; he put up a valiant fight. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise to any of us, because he didn’t go gently anywhere when he was alive, and that was the most wonderful thing about him.
He spoke his mind, he was a stand-out in style, he was never afraid to tell you he loved you, and the party—whether it was one of about twenty-five New Year’s Eves, a Prohibition-themed blow-out, an Edgar Allan Poe dinner or a tribute event to Robert Burns—honestly wasn’t made until he was there. He was a larger-than-life presence in a fedora and a classic suit. To meet him once was to have the pleasure of not being able to wait until you could hang out with him again.
If you knew Manzino, you also weren’t untouched by the man’s incredible quirkiness and creativity, and his generosity with it. He kept his first car, and showed up, unannounced, at our house one day, insisting that Nathan go for a ride with him; Nathan said riding in that car was like a trip back in time. Not only were his Peanut Butter Classics flavors—like Date Walnut and Marshmallow Toffee Crunch—some of the most unique I’d ever experienced, there are pieces of him all over my house. One year, for the holidays, he made eight-inch tall Christmas trees out of wood.
“This is the one I made for you,” he said. It had a highway on one side—he knew that Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” was my favorite song at that time—and an umbrella on the other, which was connected to our performances in Educating Rita. I love that thing, and it has been on display in my guest bathroom since the day he gave it to me. When just about two decades had passed, every time he came to my house, he’d marvel at how I still had it. “I don’t think anybody else kept theirs,” he said. “I mean you have to admit, they were kind of funky and weird.”
As self-described funky and weird as his brain children sometimes were, there was sensitivity in his artistry. After my father died, I asked Manzino to reupholster the old tiger oak rocking chair. It had two monks smoking cigarettes and drinking beer carved into back of it, and I gave him carte blanche with deciding on the color and design of the replacement cushion. He came back with something in a royal gold and white pattern that created the shape of the cross, and centered it perfectly on the seat. “I thought something religious to support the chair’s theme might really work,” he said. Needless to say, I was blown away. Who thinks that deeply when it comes to upholstering furniture?
He was inventive in a pinch, and if you needed a wingman, Manzino was it. He was a pall-bearer at my father’s funeral, and when he showed up early, the body hadn’t yet arrived, and the flowers had been carelessly strewn all over the altar in a fashion Manzino did not care for. When the casket finally got there, he helped them bring it in and fixed the altar with only seconds to spare before we showed up (I also happen to know he hurled some choice language at the funeral director, but I won’t detail what went down here). He was also the contact for our wedding coordinator, Anne-Marie, when Nathan and I got married at Howe Caverns. When we came out after being announced as husband and wife, I noticed, from across the room, that the cake had a strange cascade of blue jewels down the front of it that I hadn’t ordered. I also noticed there were random blue jewels tossed all over the tables. I just assumed the bakery had made some kind of error and continued to enjoy my day, but found out later that our topper had fallen off the cake and scored the icing down the front of it. As I was busy walking down the aisle, Anne-Marie had run to get Manzino to beg for his help. “Honey, I got this. Nothing is going to ruin this day,” Manzino said.
“What are we going to do?” she asked.
Manzino walked into the kitchen and saw several people trying to repair the icing. He said, “well, first of all, you’re all going to put the knives down because you’re just going to make more of a mess.” Then he told me he had an idea. “I had a box of these blue plastic jewels in my trunk and I thought, ‘yeah, that’ll work, we’ll put ’em on the cake, and then we’ll just throw them all over the tables so it looks like we did it on purpose.’”
“Steve,” Anne-Marie said, “the cake didn’t look like that.”
“Don’t worry. She’ll be drunk and dancing by cake time.”
After that, Nathan and I never questioned that we had definitely made the right choice in our wingman. Of course, the real question we should have asked ourselves was, “who the hell drives around with a box of blue plastic jewels in his trunk?” Obviously, Manzino did, and it saved our asses.
As much as he loved to make things with his hands, he also loved to find unusual items at tag sales, flea markets, and curiosity shops. If you knew Manzino, then you also knew his place was full of things like retro soda ads, old tools, cracked teacups, and vintage barware, but he relished sharing his treasures. He’d show up to one of my cocktail parties in his silk smoking jacket, bearing some unusual gift he’d found just for me—a vintage lobster-shaped serving dish, an ornate gilded ceramic pitcher. I would kiss his cheek in thanks and say, “you really didn’t have to do that,” and he’d say, with that grin and swift movement of his hands, “It was just so serious and cool and retro you just had to have it.”
As for the smoking jacket, Manzino had lent it to my husband for a photo shoot. Nathan didn’t want to give it back, but he did—because really, it just screamed Manzino; no one could pull it off like he did.
Manzino was also a great listener, and an even better conversationalist, especially on deep and painful matters. Then we’d reach a point in the discussion, and he’d stand up and scream, “Let’s stop talking about all of this heavy stuff and get into some serious martinis!” loud enough so that my entire neighborhood would know what we’d be quaffing in short order.
True to my promise to the man, I will not give Manzino wings where he had raven’s claws. Manzino had his moments. If you were in a show with him and he forgot his lines, he might just walk right off the set in the middle of a performance. If he was disgusted by something he was doing—like, if the politics of a certain production got to be too much for him—he’d just disappear, and good luck trying to get him to pick up his phone. When he was annoyed or angry, he would simply walk away from the conversation and leave whoever it was hanging. And sometimes? You’d ask him to do something for you, and it would take him forever to complete it. I highly suspect that he was just the world’s most amazing procrastinator. Still, when whatever you’d asked him to do was done, it had been more than well worth the wait.
Manzino, though, was also a very funny person, with an infectious laugh that, once started, usually spread to and accelerated in everyone around him until whoever was in the room could no longer stand up or breathe. Yes, the way he saw the world was hilariously inappropriate sometimes, but it was never wrong, and it was always delivered with the sense that, although he was speaking a truth, he never took it too seriously—even though he always sounded like he was trying to sell you a washing machine. His rants about the ridiculousness of people, in general, were always my favorites.
We were having a red wine fueled conversation about an argument I’d had with a guy I was dating at the time. I detailed everything this man said to me. And Manzino thought for a second and said, “See, you know, this is why people should just stop talking, because half of what they say is just so stupid.” He popped a cracker in his mouth. “I really think that animals already went through a talking phase and they already figured out it doesn’t make any difference. It only adds to the confusion. So they decided not to talk anymore. They figured they were better off. So they run around naked with their tongues hanging out all day. But if you look at their faces and into their eyes, they have a real Old World look about them, like they’re very wise.”
I used those comments as-is and had them come out of the mouth of a character named Manzino in my short story “How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love the Bunny,” which is coming out in a collection next year. My publisher wanted to change the character’s name for legal reasons, but the real Manzino insisted it should be left in. “I absolutely did say that, it’s totally true, and now the whole world is going to know that I said it,” he said. “Besides, who doesn’t want to live forever, right?”
Manzino, as tender and loving as he was, never went gently anywhere in life. And long may his memory rage against the dying of the light in the minds of us all.
Posted on December 7, 2018, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff and tagged Peanut Butter Classics, Sherman Players Sherman CT, Steve Manzino Pawling NY, Theaterworks New Milford. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.