William Martinelli: A passion for theater, always a smile in his eyes
William Martinelli, lifelong resident of Oakland and board member of Actors Ensemble of Berkeley since its incorporation in 1957, died of a lung infection at a medical facility in Oakland on July 13, 2017. Bill was the only child of Doris and Peter Martinelli, born on Jan. 5, 1930. For the majority of his life Bill lived at the family home on the corner of Kansas Street and 35th Avenue in Oakland.
This home was originally owned by his great uncle, and was a refuge for his family after the 1906 earthquake.
After high school he attended UC Berkeley where he majored in drama and joined Masque and Dagger. At Cal he was involved in many theatre productions and became part of an engaged coterie of students centered around Fred Harris, one of the founders of the UC Berkeley theatre department, and his no less dynamic wife, Mary.
After graduation, many of these students stayed in touch, and, after a few years of discussions, formed Actors Ensemble, officially incorporating in 1957, with Bill one of the founding members of the board.
Over the years Bill worked consistently behind the scenes to maintain the operations of the company with his friends Arnold Wolf, George Marchi, Ernest Landauer, Joseph Landisman, Donna Davis, Ralph Miller, Marge Glicksman, June Levin, Sue Anne Seton,Tom Reilly, Margaret Gudmundsson and countless others, finding time occasionally to act in productions.
Bill managed box office operations and acted as treasurer from the the very beginning up until 2009, when he began facing serious health problems. Even so, he continued to attend board meetings and productions up until just before his death.
His attention to detail — “That was the wrong brand of cigarette lighter for the decade of the play” — and appreciation for theatrical achievement were extraordinary, but he was a kind critic; he didn’t have a malicious bone in his body. His eyes were always smiling, and he was always ready to laugh.
Bill earned a teaching certificate at Cal, but only taught for one year, eventually finding his niche as a bookseller. He worked for many years for an enterprising woman, Jean-Marie, the owner of an independent bookshop inside Hink’s Department Store in Berkeley. He worked for Jean-Marie until she had to leave the business because of health problems in the mid 1980s, and, shortly afterwards, Hink’s went out of business itself.
Not long afterwards Bill went to work for The Book Tree in Montclair, owned by Joe Sullivan. The bookstore, though small, was very successful in part because Bill was totally immersed in ordering and selling books and always having answers to any book inquiries. He stayed at the Book Tree until health problems caused him to stop working in 2009.
Bill was a constant patron of the arts. Besides the theatre, he loved the symphony, and, especially, opera. He was a volunteer usher from when he was a student at Cal until 2009, and from 1969 often with his good friend Jan Evert. He ushered in the Opera House in orchestra center aisle every Tuesday and Friday for opera in the fall and ballet in the spring, and every Wednesday for the symphony. He kept to that pattern, even when the symphony moved to Davies Symphony Hall in 1980, until he stopped ushering in 2009, rarely (if ever) missing a performance.
Bill also constantly attended other theater productions as a season ticket holder. He never ushered but always bought a ticket because he felt a need to support theater financially. He attended ACT right from the start, Magic Theater, 42nd Street Moon, Berkeley Rep, Aurora Theater, and many others.
When Barbara Oliver and Marge Glicksman founded Aurora Theare, Bill helped with the first productions.
Bill was an ardent supporter of the SF Merola opera program for up-and-coming opera singers held each summer. He loved attending the master classes, the summer productions and vocal recitals in anticipation of the finale competition mid-August.
Bill was all about books and the arts, especially opera and theater. He had amazing perseverance and standing never stood in his way. In June 2011, when the Ring cycle was performed by the SF opera company in the Opera House, Bill bought standing room tickets for all four operas. He stood for all four, with the last one, Gotterdammerung, lasting five and one-half hours. This after recovering from a very serious health issue in 2009 from which friends never thought he would recover.
In his last few years Bill took care of (and was taken care of) by his tenant, Roger Watkins. Bill died with no surviving family members, but his legacy, Actors Ensemble, lives on. The last play of its 2017 season (its 60th anniversary) is dedicated to Bill: The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont, opens at John Hinkel Park on Aug.19 and plays for free at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays until Sept. 3, with a final performance on Monday Sept. 4 (Labor Day) at 4 p.m.
Some plays of note that Bill appeared in:
1961 – The Bald Soprano (Mr. Martin)
1963 – As You Desire Me
1969 – The Mother of us All
1982 – Pal Joey
1999 – Murder at the Vicarage
A small service was held for Bills’ close friends on Friday, Aug. 4.