Remembering John Gilleece

 Remembering John Gilleece

By Dan Guarino

Somewhere in Rockaway, a stage light dimmed on Monday, October 23, as word spread that beloved Rockaway Theatre Company co-founder and community member John J. Gilleece had passed away. The gentleman, his son Matt described as “a good man, a great man, a brilliant and funny man; a performer, producer, director, singer, musician, songwriter, teacher, professor, motivator, coach, source of inspiration; a friend to everyone,” had taken his final bow.

Matt Gilleece noted, “He was a proud father to me, John C. Gilleece, Rob Gilleece, Lisa Tirado and Annmarie Tirado, and an incredibly, gushingly doting grandfather of 12.” Eighty-one years old, he would have celebrated his 82nd birthday in January.

A wake will be held at Brooklyn’s Marine Park Funeral Parlor, 3024 Quentin Road, on Friday, October 27, from 3 to 8 p.m. Funeral services will be at St. Francis de Sales Church, Saturday, October 28 at 9:45 a.m. The Gilleece family has requested, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the organization “that was so close to John’s heart…The Rockaway Theatre Company.”

John Gilleece was born in New York City and raised on the Upper East Side. He later recalled, “I moved into Rockaway from Brooklyn around 1996-97.” His passion for performing, spanning 75 years, started early. “My identical twin brother and I had been performing since we were about 6 years old,” he said. Singing, dancing, playing a variety of instruments, they performed at churches, parish halls and other venues. His mother got them an audition which led them to becoming live weekly television regulars on “The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour” airing on Channel 11. They still performed through college, often including a friend, and appearing as The Gilleece Triplets, many years later reuniting to perform onstage at the Rockaway Theatre Company.

Beloved by many in 30 years as a NYC high school English and Theatre teacher, Gilleece became an Associate Professor at Kingsborough Community College after retirement, teaching ESL and helping high school students prep for higher learning.

Throughout his life, he had “done lots and lots of theatre,” including productions on Broadway and Lincoln Center. He had “also done a number of independent films as a performer and behind the lens…and any number of commercials,” Gilleece said.

He was also noted for his beautiful speaking voice reading Bible passages as a lector and parishioner at St. Francis de Sales.

Perhaps his most enduring legacy is as one of the founders of the Rockaway Theatre Company in 1997. Longtime RTC collaborator and friend, Susan Jasper said, “We nominated him to be our first Artistic Director,” a post he held until earlier this year. When their original Beach 116th Street space abruptly closed, they found a new home while doing a Halloween show at Fort Tilden. Gilleece and company negotiated with the National Park Service to use the former army base’s long neglected cinema, building it into a fully functional theatrical venue capable of supporting all types of performances. “John was the driving force to get that theatre into what it is today,” Jasper said.

Directing musicals such as “La Cage Aux Folles,” “The Producers,” and “Pippin,” Gilleece often appeared in small parts. In his last production, 2022’s “Kiss Me Kate,” he even stepped into a pivotal role when another actor fell ill.

His RTC pre-show voice announcements signaled to audience and excited actors alike “The show is starting!” Up to last week, he was deeply involved in RTC’s Young People’s Theatre Workshop.

Importantly, Gilleece was a mentor, generous with his time and talent, remembered for his warmth, smile, good humor and encouragement.

An outpouring of loving tributes following his death noted this often. “He believed in people,” wrote RTC choreographer/actor/director Gabrielle Mangano. “He made them feel seen, made them feel loved and made them feel like they could achieve anything on and off the stage.”

Knowing years ago, RTC would need new blood to stay creative and strong, Gilleece began turning over directing opportunities to give others a chance.

It is fitting RTC’s production of “The Miracle Worker,” the last of the season, opening November 3, is now dedicated to John Gilleece. He too worked to create miracles on that stage. And his enduring legacy is that he inspired so many to know, to believe, that they could too. In that way, John Gilleece’s spotlight will always shine.

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