Gerry Roe, a stalwart of the local theater scene for more than three decades, died Sunday in Billings.
Roe, who was 73, is remembered by students and actors as a supportive director who was able to find people’s strengths and nurture their talent. He died in hospice care at Billings Clinic after dealing with health issues for a few months.
Jayme Green, who took over Rocky Mountain College’s Theater Department after Roe’s retirement in 2015, said Roe helped him find his path in life.
“Something clicked toward the end of my sophomore year. Looking back, a large part of that was being around and seeing Gerry’s passion,” Green said. “He loved what he did.”
Lyn DeBree Al was in Roe’s first acting class at Rocky in 1987, and the two forged such a strong friendship that Al asked Roe to walk her down the aisle when she got married in 2008.
“I remember one of the first rehearsals I had with Gerry on his first play at Rocky, ‘Harvey.' It was awful, but we tried,” Al said. “He stood up and said, ‘That’s a glorious failure. If you fail without trying, we can’t do anything to make it better. But if you fail trying, we’ve got something to work with.’”
Dee Cates became his stage manager in 2013 when Roe directed “Les Miserables” at Billings Studio Theatre.
“Gerry wasn’t a tall person, but his personality was humongous,” Cates said. “If he saw that somebody was left out and wasn’t getting the attention they needed, Gerry made sure they got the attention they deserved.”
Roe taught at Rocky from 1987 to 2015. Rocky Academic Vice President Stephen Germic said in a note to staff on Tuesday that Roe directed productions from every imaginable period and genre.
“The many of us who worked directly with him on these productions knew his indefatigable energy, and everyone who met him experienced the privileges of his grace and good humor.”
One of Roe's greatest moments was winning the Rocky Mountain Theater Association's first place award for Rocky's production of "Almost, Maine." The success of that show allowed Roe to coax the playwright, Tony Award winner John Cariani, to Billings in 2014 to work with Roe's students on "Love/Sick."
Roe grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, and graduated from high school in 1962. He wrote a song that was performed by his classmates at their graduation. His first real stage role was playing Og in the political satire “Finian’s Rainbow,” and there was a hiccup.
“In one scene, they would pull off parts of my clothing,” Roe said in 2015. “The pants were supposed to pull off and I had another pair underneath, but somehow they got stuck together and everything but my underwear came off.”
Roe said the spelling of his first name was a typo at the hospital when he was born. His mother liked it and kept it, but his family called him by his middle name, Ben or Benny.
Susan Sommerfeld, a Billings actress and director, has known Roe since 1973. In the 1990s, Roe cast Sommerfeld as Adelaide in her first-ever show at BST, "Guys and Dolls," performing with Wally Kurth in the leading role.
"What a career he had," Sommerfeld said.
A highlight of the many shows Roe directed at Billings Studio Theatre was “Les Miserables.” It was the biggest undertaking ever at BST and it packed the theater every night during its four-week run. It also brought one important audience member to the theater, Roe said in 2015.
“My sister had never seen a show I directed, and she’s close to 80 now,” Roe said in 2015. “She came to see that show. At the end of the performance, I went out to talk with her and she started crying. She said, ‘Benny, I never knew.’”
Memorial services are pending.