Fishtown Local: From skyline to murky sky

Another sad milestone has come and gone in Gloucester: Ian McColl, 71, has passed from the scene. He was a familiar colorful fabric in our city’s tartan.

An adopted son of our city, Ian moved from New York City to The Fort in the ’80s to take over as managing director of Gloucester Stage Company. He had come from managing a well-regarded national dance troupe and Israel Horovitz favored New Yorkers, most likely for their ability to put up with almost anything, including himself. It was at a tumultuous time for GSC and Ian dived right into the surf. Israel was the artistic director and determined the order and composition of shows at the Stage Co., but then he would return to NYC and leave all the details and finances to Ian.

Ian McColl was married to Celeste Miller, a performance artist who combined theater and dance movement to tell stories and paint the pictures of her youth.

They were really rather amusing and very creative. It was in her world, coming of age, told her way and dragging you right along. Ian was a feedback loop for her and held down the fort when she traveled her art extensively across the country. Her performance art form was on the rise in the country back in the ’80s and ’90s and she would get commissions from liberal cultural institutions to perform in far-flung western, southern and mid-western cities. Critics loved her. Ian would care for their young daughter, Alexandra, with help from his theater supporters when his schedule clogged. They parted years ago.

Ian was hired to produce the shows, stage them, run the business, recruit tech people, sell tickets, market to new subscribers, attract publicity, pay the taxes, hire and process the actors payroll, give the curtain speech to start the shows, deal with the city, deal with the actors union, deal with the board and deal with Gorton’s, which owned the building still. Not much, right?

Ian’s most formidable achievement, however, was the yearly production of Horovitz’s “Scrooge & Marley,” which often ended up balancing the theater’s books by years end. It had two mammoth casts — more than 60 each — of adults and of young actors, teen and elementary kids galore. They would rotate the casts, which had the effect of selling out every single show. Because, you see, each kid had aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, grandmas, etc., who wanted to see their little star of the show.

By doubling the number of actors, you doubled the aunts and grandmas too. They were quite complicated shows too. Man, you had to pay attention. Troops of angels moving this way and street urchins that way. Don Roby’s Scrooge moaning and groaning, townspeople wassailing while lute players strummed and the lighting guy missed his cue! All the while Ian presided over the chaos of these crossing armadas that somehow always ended up ready by opening night. It’s nice to remember Ian at his best and this was it.

All my kids did Scrooge and moved into more grown-up parts as they aged. They, like all their other peers, met a bunch of their best friends through the play, thanks to Ian. So many kids share the bond of being in that show. It’s like a club. Memories of that mysterious luminescent light in the theater stick with me even today.

When Ian had a falling out with Israel after seven years, I approached him about doing a cable TV show while he was job searching. Gloucester Chicken Shack was born.

We worked endless hours learning the equipment, filming and editing up at the cable station. I created the ideas and acquired the talent, he criticized, smoked cigarettes and edited, his three favorite things. Mostly we did what came naturally and we met some incredible, talented comedians in Rick Hooglio Bastisto and Barbara Koen, who were to join us onstage at The Ocean Club, an idea Ian thought up to work in tandem with the TV show. He booked the worst deal in recorded history with Fred Shrigley and off we went over The Rhumbline. It was very successful for two years but all good things must end. We went our separate theater ways for a while but he became involved with The West End Theater for a short time with Lynda Robinson 2005-2007.

But by then, the chickens had come home to roost on Ian McColl’s lifestyle. He lived exactly as he wanted to. He roamed Gloucester, knew everybody downtown, loved to tell a story, even if you’d heard that one seven times before, he’d roll it out again and rip off a metallic, cackling overtone of a tremendous laugh at the story, himself, you and the world. Even at his worst bouts, he’d still play the old philosopher, witty and still happy.

He was always glad to see you. There was just too little time to feel miserable, ashamed or crabby. He loved his life. He died living the way he wanted. Mentor to many, drinking buddy to others — first as a star in the city skyline but now a star in the murky Gloucester sky.

Ian McColl, we will miss you. You were the colorful essence of Gloucester.

Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.


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