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Remembering Ernie Casciato

ArtsWatch Weekly: In praise of the beloved actor and teacher, dead at 67. Plus: Healing art, stage & screen, more.


THE NEWS BEGAN TO TRICKLE IN, AS NEWS SO OFTEN DOES THESE DAYS, on Facebook: Ernie Casciato, the beloved Portland actor and possibly even more beloved teacher, was dead. He died on Sunday, at age 67, after eight months of various illnesses that had had him in and out of the hospital, and the memories – a mix of shock and sadness and deep affection – started pouring in.

“Ernie had a huge heart and made people feel loved. Simple as that,” one former student wrote. “That is a gift he gave without limit.” Another former student wrote: “He made every one of us feel seen.”

The Portland actor and teacher Ernie Casciato lived robustly and enjoyed life. Photo via Facebook

Those of us who didn’t know him in the classroom knew him on the stage, where he was effervescent and a tad outrageous and defiantly dancerly, a man of girth and grace who had the deftest of comic timing. Ernie was a Portlander through and through, a 1972 graduate of La Salle High School, a 1976 grad of the University of Portland, and for 39 years beginning in 1976, the drama teacher back at La Salle – a citizen-artist in the most devoted and inspiring sense. For decades he was ubiquitous on the city’s stages, appearing mostly but not entirely in musicals and comedies, as apt to pop up in a dinner-theater comic murder mystery or in a Neil Simon comedy on a suburban stage as on a mainstream stage such as the old Portland Civic Theatre, where he was a brilliantly funny Mr. Mushnik to the equally brilliant Margie Boulé as Audrey and Randall Stuart as Seymour in a sparkling Little Shop of Horrors.

He loved, as his friends came to know early and often, Lucille Ball and Kate Hepburn, as much as he loved good Italian food and wine. In Facebook postings, a surprising number of people remembered him as an annual and benevolent Santa Claus who charmed both them and their kids. Ernie was a terrific musical-theater comedian, from Little Shop to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to Gilbert and Sullivan, in which he was the very model of the very model of a modern major general.

These gifts and accomplishments were the utmost opposite of trivial. People often sell short comedy and comedians, as if they were not serious, and yet, what is more exhilarating, and humanizing, than the release of laughter? To emanate in one’s art and life a lightness of being, although you might be born with the proclivity, is hard and demanding work: To make the journey through the difficulties of life seem buoyant and easy is both a gift and a minor miracle. Casciato put in his time on the Shakespearean stage, too – and are not the Dogberrys and Falstaffs and Nick Bottoms of the theatrical universe as memorable and soul-enhancing as the Lears and Henrys and Brutuses? (Is not Lear, in fact, at once a great tragic figure and a great fool?)

“He played stand-up bass, knew the best restaurants in town, and never forgot my birthday,” Ernie’s great friend and frequent co-star Margie Boulé wrote upon learning of his death. “I once told him he was the most incredible comic actor I ever knew, that he could move to L.A. and star in a sitcom within a year. I stand by that opinion, but Ernie was too attached to Portland and his family and his church and especially his beloved students at the Catholic high school where he taught, brilliantly, for decades.”

Ernie Casciato in a 2008 production of “Waiting for Godot.” Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

A spirit such as this is something like the loaves and fishes, nourishing far beyond what seems possible. There was only one Ernie Casciato. And there are a million Ernie Casciatos: the teachers, performers, clowns and companions and encouragers and entertainers and guides, the famous and famous-in-their-own-towns, scattered in cities and villages around the world, like seeds, quietly or exuberantly growing moments of laughter and beauty and the sheer joy of living as gifts to anyone willing to accept the harvest. Ernie passed himself along, and so abides. “Known for his whimsy, playfulness, and banter, Ernie could often be heard singing in classrooms, meeting rooms, and hallways,” LaSalle noted in its online tribute to Casciato, adding, “(I)t is likely the individual relationships Ernie fostered will be his lasting Lasallian legacy. There are countless stories from his students about how Ernie saw them, encouraged them, challenged them and ultimately, was a true big brother to them. A little bit of Ernie shines on in them, reflecting his unique humor, gregariousness, and compassion.”


Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

A celebration of Ernie’s life, hosted by his former students Kate Andries and Michael Zimmer, is set for 1 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29, on a soccer field at La Salle High School.

Nurturing art for a time of grieving and healing

Independent Publishing Resource Center Studio Manager Jakelen Diaz helps two participants pull a screenprint poster at the event “See Me. iAm. HEAR: A Creative Activation of Youth Voices of Color,” outside the Portland Art Museum. Photo courtesy Portland Art Museum

AMID CRISES, CREATING ART TO HEAL. Subashini Ganesan-Forbes’ term as Portland’s creative laureate has ended, but she’s still hip-deep in unfinished business – leading a city drive to nurture art for a time of grieving and healing after the cultural and health shocks of the past year and a half. TJ Acena talks with her about what the project is and how it’s gong. “If we take the historical and cultural approach, art has always been part of grief and mourning ceremonies,” Ganesan-Forbes tells Acena. “Spaces where people come together. Dance, music, drumming, every culture has its own way of incorporating art into what we collectively think of as healing.”

Stage & Screen: Multicultural voices, a fine CODA

JoAnn Johnson (left) and Jane Bement Geesman in Profile Theatre’s production of Paula Vogel’s “The Oldest Profession.” Photo: David Kinder

PLAYWRIGHT, PROVOCATEUR, AND MORE. Bennett Campbell Ferguson took in Profile Theatre’s recent immersion in the plays of Paula Vogel, which culminated on Sunday with the final performance of The Oldest Profession, and in his essay delved into what makes Vogel’s work accessible, challenging, and important. “Vogel is a feminist provocateur who forces audiences to confront injustice without flattering their sense of virtue,” Ferguson writes. “Her plays dare us to laugh at the unthinkable—sex work, AIDS, you name it—but she has a way of throwing an audience’s laughter back in their face, making them ask why they are laughing in the first place.”

PACIFIC NORTHWEST MULTI-CULTURAL READERS SERIES & FILM FESTIVAL. This highly promising festival, produced by PassinArt: A Theatre Company and carrying the theme Our Voice, Our Story, Our Way, takes place via streaming this weekend, Friday-Sunday, Aug. 20-22, with almost 40 events. It includes about a dozen films, among them Ofelio, A Border Story (written by Andrew Siañez-De La O, directed by Francisco Garcia), about a former Border Patrol guard who detained Latino and Mexican people, including children, at the border and is now raising a child of his own; Portland writer and actor Josie Seid’s Being Me in the Current America (directed by Dmae Lo Roberts), built around racial profiling in Lake Oswego; and writer-director Javon Johnson’s After the Rose, about love, loss, and domestic violence. Another potential highlight: Saturday’s panel discussion Addressing Color, Colorism, & Culture in Theatre & Film

THE BROKEN HEART SPREAD. We’re entering the final weekend of the first offering from the interesting new troupe The Theatre Company, which was just getting started when the coronavirus shut everything down. Portland playwright Claire Willett’s The Broken Heart Spread, a 45-minute streaming film about a day in the life of a tarot practitioner, stars DeLanna Studi and truly kicks things off. Producer Jen Rowe calls it a “tender waterfall of words”; a friend of the playwright’s describes it as “like a refreshing brain yoga session”: Stretch those lobes. Next up, starting Sept. 10: Studi’s Capax Infiniti, starring Laure Faye Smith.


Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

FOUR STRANGERS, A JAZZ BAR, AND A MISSING WIFE. Bennett Campbell Ferguson talks with rising young playwright Maeve Z O’Connor about her new play Omission, which premieres this weekend at the Keizer Cultural Center east of Eugene. “I think of myself as someone who tells stories that often tend to be a little surreal or a little off-putting, where not everything is given to you outright,” O’Connor tells Ferguson.

THEATRES RESTAFF, BUT WHO GETS TO COME BACK? Everybody’s waiting for America’s theaters to get back to the business of presenting live plays on actual stages – but what’ll it look like, and as importantly, who’ll be getting hired back to make it happen? In an American Theatre magazine report, Jerald Raymond Pierce looks at who’s likely to return and who’s likely to be sidelined. Cynthia Fuhrman, managing director of Portland Center Stage at The Armory, is quoted extensively.

FILMWATCH WEEKLY: ‘CODA,’ ‘BARBARA LEE: SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER,’ AND ‘CRYPTOZOO.’ Marc Mohan praises CODA, a movie about a hearing daughter caught between her own ambitions and her duties to her non-hearing family: “From the get-go, the portrayal of this family feels as authentic as any glimpse into deaf culture I’ve seen on screen.”  Also reviewed: a documentary about Rep. Barbara Lee, who cast the only “no” vote to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force after 9/11; and the animated feature Cryptozoo.

Emilia Jones stars in the new movie “CODA,” opening Friday at Cinema 21 in Portland and also showing on AppleTV+.

Here, there, and everywhere: Art from all over

"Desert Clouds" by Erin Hanson
“Desert Clouds,” by Erin Hanson, in the eponymous new gallery in McMinnville.

THEATER UPDATE: OPEN, CLOSED, AND ON HIATUS. David Bates takes a look at what’s happening in and around Yamhill County, delivering theater updates (including a show about First Ladies Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, and Betty Ford having tea together) and also checking the gallery scene, including the new Erin Hanson Gallery in McMinnville’s industrial park. Plus: A UFO Festival sighting!

On the Arts Bus are (from left) Jason Holland, Executive Director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts; Cynthia Jacobi, Newport City Council member; Moe Snyder, instructor; Sara Siggelkow, OCCA Arts Education Manager; Cathey Briggs, OCCA board member; Dean Sawyer, Newport mayor; Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis; Gary Lehman, volunteer; Tom Webb, Newport Visual Arts Center director; and Dietmar Goebel, Newport City Council member.
The Oregon Coast Art Bus is hitting the highways and byways to take art opportunities to kids in rural Lincoln County.

OREGON COAST ART BUS HITS THE ROAD. In a neat twist on the old idea of the bookmobile, the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts is launching a bus to take art opportunities to rural kids in Lincoln County. “For kids living in rural areas, an art program only miles away may still be too far,” Lori Tobias writes. “Even shorter drives can be time consuming — assuming there’s transportation — and news of the event doesn’t always reach beyond urban boundaries. When it does, it’s never a given the money for fees will be there.” So, the art is going to the kids – 800 of them this summer, organizers hope. 

MUSIC BY UNCOMMON WOMEN: MAKROKOSMOS 7. Charles Rose writes about his adventures at Makrokosmos, the new-music extravaganza that this year returned to live performances (at Portland Piano Company and the Portland Japanese Garden) and featured, in its two expansive concerts, music by women, including such notable composers as Joan Tower, Chen Yi, Haruna Miyake, and Meredith Monk. “Over the last few years, amid controversies and upturnings, there has been a surge of women composers on concert programs, gaining national attention and praise,” Rose writes. “But now, it is not simply enough to see women on programs, to hear their music alongside the men: if we really want to strive for true equality, their appearance must no longer be a novelty or a noteworthy occurrence.” 


Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

Malteus Crelbin is one of six artists whose work is being shown at Prisms Gallery in Salem in the Queer Pride Art Show.

SALEM QUEER PRIDE ART SHOW. Salem Capital Pride kicks off its annual Pride in the Park event in Salem’s RiverFront Park with this affiliated art show at Prisms Gallery, on the second floor of Reed Opera House in downtown Salem. The celebration in the park is 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 21. The art show, which features work by a half-dozen LGBTQ+ artists, opens Saturday and continues through Sept. 30. The Pride Show works are being displayed in the gallery’s large windows, and can be viewed any time the Opera House is open.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


2 Responses

  1. I am not on FaceBook, but Mike, who is, shared your beautiful tribute to Ernie Casciato, Bob. Thank you so much for capturing so eloquently the essence of our beloved friend. I can feel him blushing.

    1. I was a member of Ernie’s first class at La Salle high school. He inspired enlightened and entertained us all! 20 years later both of my children had him as a teacher at LaSalle and eventually as he left the high school I was able to convince him to come teach for me at SaintTherese elementary school.

      I so enjoyed your tribute, so amazingly well written! Rest in peace dear friend.

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