Jerry Tallmer, one of the Village Voice‘s founding editors and the creator of the Village Voice Obie awards, died Sunday morning, just a month short of his 94th birthday. For those who knew him or his achievements, it will take some effort to imagine New York, the Village, and the downtown arts scene continuing without the presence of his observant eye. Nothing escaped Jerry. As the Voice‘s first Associate Editor, with a passionate interest in every new development in politics and the arts, he recruited and nurtured many of the extraordinary contributors who established the Voice‘s reputation: Jules Feiffer, Nat Hentoff, Jonas Mekas, Jill Johnston, and Andrew Sarris were among his edit clients.
He himself served as the Voice‘s first theater critic — and additionally edited the contributions of his hot-tempered, contentious colleague in that department, the paper’s co-founder, Norman Mailer. But Mailer drifted off to engage in novel-writing, politics, scene-making, and filmmaking. Jerry stayed with the theater, which was his surpassing passion. His reviews won him the George Jean Nathan Award for Distinguished Theater Criticism in 1962 — making him the first of seven Village Voice critics to have won that coveted award following the parameters of the daringly combative, outspoken, wide-ranging, and vociferously articulate Theater section that Jerry set up.
The combative tone came from pure love: Jerry, like the many younger critics who joined him or followed in his wake, was devoted to everything that was new, exciting, and cherishable in theater. The Voice was created when the excitement was all burgeoning in the Village, and Jerry was quick to perceive — and seize — the opportunity. He brought the idea of the Obie awards to the Voice management, and himself presided over the judges’ panel for its first several years.
At a time when longstanding racial barriers had only begun to be breached in the theater, he had no hesitation about inviting a young African American actor just coming into prominence, Earle Hyman, to serve as a guest judge in the first year of the Obies, 1956; the gesture had a glowing culmination more than half a century later, when Hyman received the 2009 Obie award for Lifetime Achievement. An established circuit of Off-Broadway theaters had already begun to take shape, but Jerry, being Jerry, started the tradition of stretching that boundary line in the awards’ very first season, and made sure an award went to something he’d fallen in love with which could only be called Off-Off — a ramshackle production in a downtown loft, which happened to be the New York premiere of Genet’s The Maids, staged by Julie Bovasso.
In 1962, Jerry left the Voice for the New York Post, at that time still a liberal paper owned by Dorothy Schiff. At the Post he wrote and edited, tirelessly, on the arts and a dozen other subjects, until he was terminated in 1993, when the paper’s then-new owner, Rupert Murdoch, broke the union and fired 287 people. It did not occur to Jerry that 73 was any time to stop working. From 1994 to 2005 he served as a senior copy editor for General Media and wrote for a whole slew of their publications and others — everything from Penthouse to Gay City News. Much of his last decade was spent continuing to review theater and films, most recently for The Villager, to which he also contributed a set of recollections of the Village’s now-historic past. Ill health and a move to a nursing home didn’t dampen his ardor for the theater; on his deathbed — literally — he was inquiring about new shows that had just opened. We won’t be able to read his reviews of them on this earth. And if you ask me whether we’ll see his like again down here, I’d say it’s damned unlikely.