Former Sanibel resident and well-known New York theatre personality A. John Bartis died in Naples early on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. Known far and wide as John, his real name was really Aristides, which he dropped when he became a professional singer.
Born in 1924 in Meriden, Conn., he attended Tufts and graduated from Wesleyan University with honors in psychology, enlisted in the Navy for two years, and took graduate studies at Yale. Then it was on to New York where he took voice with Romano Romani, Rosa Ponsell's coach. During his 15 years in New York, he played in "Hazel Flagg" in 1953; he appeared in "Inside U.S.A" and "Miss Liberty" with Bea Lillie (and Eddie Albert in the latter show) and with Ethel Merman in "Call Me Madam."
He was one of New York's foremost vocal coaches from the 1950s through the 1970s teaching - among many others - James Farentino, Ruth Buzzi, Cicily Tyson, John Cryer and Julie Newmar. (He was actively teaching his private students in Southwest Florida until the end of this past May.) He met Frank Wagner, prominent Broadway director/choreographer/jazz dance instructor and late husband of Islander theatre critic Marsha Wagner, during this period as well.
John and Arthur Partington were instructors at Choate Rosemary Hall Prep School in Wallingford, Conn., with John teaching drama, theatre arts and voice, and Arthur dance. The two also started the Connecticut Academy of Dance & Theatre which they operated until "retiring" to Sanibel in 1980. Once they got to Sanibel and, after spending many, many summers in Arrezzo, Italy, they created the world-famous Pinocchio's Italian Gelato/Ice Cream Shop on Sanibel's east end.
"John became a great, great chef," according to Robert Cacioppo, artistic director of Florida Repertory Theatre, "and was a truly fabulous storyteller. He was a great nurturer of young talent and a mentor to many, with 'leading man' good looks; he taught singing and acting gratis to our interns at the Arcade since we opened. I can't tell you how much Carrie's and my children loved him. He was always 'Uncle John' to them as well as to Marsha and Frank's daughter and granddaughters and was immensely important in our lives, very much a family member. We shall miss him terribly."
"'The End of an Era' we all know what that means and the nostalgia it brings with it," former Sanibel resident Jay Halcrow mused. "With the death of John Bartis an era has closed. He and his friend of over 50 years, Arthur Partington, welcomed me into a wonderful world of great friendship, food fit for kings, absolute silliness and laughter. To me it was a gift from two very special brothers who made my entrance into Sanibel life fun, interesting, and filled with great kindness. Now they are both gone and the small world we all inhabit will never be the same for me or for the group of friends that were our island family.
A few thoughts from Marsha Wagner
People come into our lives to mentor, enrich and change us; John Bartis was that person the universe chose to send me. I was introduced to John by my late husband Frank, shortly after we were engaged to be married. Our deep and lasting closeness began with that introduction and lasted some 56 years. John became Uncle John to all of us when my daughter Lisa was born and he became her Godfather.
One can only measure friendship by the richness and color it adds to life, and John added all of that to mine. John had become the older brother I've always yearned for and never had, he was my best buddy, my awesome singing teacher, my challenging acting director, my rock to hold me steady when my beloved Frank died, my health advocate, my culinary instructor, the pal I could share laughs with and, when life handed me lemons, he showed me how to make lemonade.
Our family became part of the Bartis clan when we bought our house in the Bartis compound on Hanover Pond in Meriden. Frank and I moved to Sanibel because of Uncle John, who had opened an ice cream parlor selling Pinocchio's gelato. Friendship is like that; its roots go deep and are intricately intertwined.
There are no words to say how very much I will miss him but, then again, I will choose to live the words we both chose when our beloved partners died "I will live fearlessly and passionately, enjoying each day as though it were my last. Farewell, dearest friend - thank you for all you have taught me."
Meanwhile, "Let's go on with the show!"
"The era may be over, but it will never to be forgotten."
Although he was in New York at the same time as John and John knew of him, Dennis Cunningham, CBS's main theatre commentator did not meet John until he (Cunningham) had been living in Southwest Florida for eight years; they met at Florida Rep.
"I simply can't say enough about him," Cunningham, who now lives in Fort Myers Beach, said. "He was a treasured friend. He was so centered, he really knew who he was He always gave his full attention to his students and took great pride in their advancement. We spent many, many hours together telling stories and discussing all kinds of things in his 'salon,' as I called it, in McGregor Woods; and he was one of the most sociable people I ever met my greatly treasured friend, whom I will sorely miss."
John is survived his brother, Thomas J. Bartis of Naples; nieces Mary and Theresa of Meriden and Fran Dioguardi of Sanibel; and nephews Peter and James of Meriden and John A. Bartis, who had been staying with him in Fort Myers since December; many great nephews and nieces plus a never-ending list of dear friends and students. A private family service will take place this week in Connecticut, and a memorial service will be held sometime in November at the Arcade Theatre.