"gregarious in his habits and communicative in his nature, with a quick wit and a ready smile"[VALL]
Over the past couple of years, we've eased back on the number of Sherlockian obituaries (or "terraces") that we post here on the site. We were concerned that it would become something of a mausoleum rather than a site that reports on goings-on in the world of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts and popular culture.
But there are certain individuals among our little hobby who loom large and have an impact on many of us and on the ways we come together. One such man was Robert Thomalen, BSI ("The Three Garridebs"), who served as "Cartwright" (something of a right-hand man) to Tom Stix's "Wiggins". Bob passed away in New York on December 5, 2019.
Because of Bob's personality, reputation and influence on the Sherlockian world, we knew that this wasn't something that we could write on our own. There are so many stories, both public and private, that convey the meaning and enthusiasm that Bob brought to our world, that we solicited some.
As you'll see, these stories run the gamut, from respected Sherlockian to friendly uncle to an incorrigible funster.
"I am now about to summarise" [ENGR]We'll start with a summary from Peter Blau, BSI ("Black Peter"):
So many memories of Bob . . . including his often-told Hunchback of Notre Dame joke... here's a draft of a few facts for my newsletter obit:
Robert E. Thomalen (“The Three Garridebs”) died on Dec. 5. Beginning in 1986 he presided over many “Autumn in Baker Street” (and one “Springtime in Baker Street”) conferences, which he boasted combined “scholarship with friendship, emotion with reason, and explication with participation”), and in 1987 was appointed “Cartwright” of the Baker Street Irregulars, receiving the BSI’s Queen Victoria Medal when he retired in 1996. He received his BSI Investiture in 1983, and the Two-Shilling Award in 1988.
More on that Hunchback joke later.
"if you can lay your hand on a Garrideb" [3GAR]Sue Vizoskie, BSI ("Mrs. Saunders"), a longtime member of the Three Garridebs, writes Bob's official Sherlockian obituary from his home Sherlockian society:
Bob was a very early member of the Three Garridebs of Westchester County. According to his scion history, Bob first attended a Three Garridebs meeting in February 1978. He and Peter Deschamps, another new member at the same meeting, were the seventh and eighth members of our scion. (Theresa Thomalen, Bob’s wife, was the first female member of the Three Garridebs and was soon joined by Eleanor Schweickert and Adele Cleary.)
Bob founded Prescott’s Press in May 1978, writing most of the articles in the inaugural issue and beyond. He continued to edit Prescott’s Press through December 1982. (After a hiatus, Warren Randall assumed editorship in December 1988.) In 1979, Bob became an officer in the Three Garridebs and served until September 1993. During this period, Bob was the master of ceremonies at the meetings, supported by the other officers. In 1986, he was given the Three Garridebs’ Two Shilling award. This was followed in 1997 with the scion’s Queen Victoria letter and in 1998, the HA HA award for the most humorous paper of the year.
Bob attended his first BSI Annual Dinner in 1980 and was invested in 1983 into the BSI as "The Three Garridebs." In 1988. Thomas Stix, Jr., honored Bob with the Two-Shilling Award, the BSI’s highest award, and in 1996, Bob received the BSI’s Queen Victoria Medal.
Bob, ably assisted by his wife, Theresa, was the creator and impresario of Autumn in Baker Street, an annual weekend conference running from 1982 to 2000 with a reprise as Springtime in Baker Street in April 2006 and a final Autumn in Baker Street in September 2007. If you were an attendee at any of these weekends, you are recalling how much fun you had.
We will greatly miss Bob--his sense of humor, his gregariousness, his kindness, and his friendship. For many Sherlockians, Bob was one of the first Sherlockians they met. His smile was welcoming as was his greeting, and his enthusiasm was infectious. He enjoyed the Sherlockian world and playing the game, and he wanted you to enjoy it, too.
He was a mentor to many Sherlockians. He encouraged participation and ideas and new activities. He encouraged many to present poems and papers at meetings as well as at Autumn in Baker Street. As he listened to an idea, his eyes would twinkle, he’d smile, and then he’d say, “That sounds great. You do it.” And you would.
If you knew Bob, you have your own special memories. On a personal note, Bob (and Bill Schweickert) encouraged us to expand a small picnic and tea for four into the scion activity which grew into our Annual Victorian Picnic and Tea, running for twenty years. He encouraged our idea for the Gasfitters Ball as a Saturday evening entertainment at an Autumn in Baker Street, and that activity was repeated twice more.
And so, dear friends, it is impossible for a Garrideb to know how much of our fun and laughter and enjoyment of our Sherlockian friendships and gatherings we owe to Bob. Those who knew Bob were very lucky, and those in the scion who didn’t know him have benefited from the example set by Bob and the other early officers.
"my uncle began to speak loudly" [BERY]
A large sink hole opens in the heart. How is this even possible? I, like many Sherlockians, remember Bob mostly from Autumn in Baker Street. He'd be standing on the podium behind the lectern and greet us with that great big smile of his. It was just like having a favorite uncle of yours welcoming you to a family reunion. It was a very warming feeling to see and hear him in that role.
Bob was a very warm fellow who genuinely loved people, and it showed. I only saw him get angry once in the 30-some years that I knew him. How many of us could make such a boast about ourselves?
Then there were the parties that he and Theresa hosted for us at their house. More warmth and jovial camaraderie.
Goodbye Bob! Knowing you was a treat and an honor.
"I looked at the clock" [CROO]The Baker Street Irregulars has been compiling an oral history from as many members as possible, and in 2008, Francine Kitts, BSI ("Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope") interviewed Bob. It can be found on the BSI Trust website.
Francine also has her own very special memories to share here:
Bob was my Sherlockian mentor and special friend. He had the best sense of humor, which he never lost, even in these later years. He still made me laugh when we spoke on the phone. He loved to tell the story of the time he came to speak at my Holmes class in 2003. He always teased me about the fact that I had everything planned in advance and kept meticulous notes on the upcoming class. I, of course, thought that he had a lecture planned, so when, on the drive to the school, he asked me what I'd like him to discuss, I was horrified. He told that story for years. If you knew Bob, you know that he had the whole class eating out of the palm of his hand.
About a year ago, Richard and I went to visit Bob, and he had a special gift for me. He knew that the one item in all his collection that I loved was the clock of the Beeton's Christmas Annual cover, which he had commissioned. It happened to have also been Terry's favorite clock, so Bob saved it even though he sold his entire collection. That day he had that clock wrapped up and waiting for me, and it will always be one of my most prized possessions.
For many years every time we were together we made sure we took a picture for "our album." I have a treasure trove of memories and will miss that wonderful man.
|Beeton's Christmas Annual clock|
|Francine Kitts (center) with Theresa and Bob Thomalen|
"little cries suggestive of encouragement" [STUD]
I remember standing in the ballroom of the Regency Hotel in January, 1983, joking with Bob Thomalen and Bob Coghill. I remarked that Julian Wolff [then head of the BSI] must be fond of the name "Robert", as the three of us had just received our Irregular Shillings that evening.
I can't recall when I first met Bob Thomalen but he was the kind of guy who made a strong and positive first impression. I liked him immensely and immediately, as did everyone in the Sherlockian world.
His Autumn in Baker Street events, for many years held at Bear Mountain, NY, had already become legendary by the time I was able to attend my first, in 1987. I was relocating to New Jersey and Bob went out of his way to make it possible for me to be there and to be one of the speakers. His wit and charm were matched only by his attention to detail in the administration of these fabulous events.
Once we'd settled in Morristown, my wife and I attended a meeting of The Three Garridebs, that night meeting in Eastchester, NY. Bob moderated a brief discussion of one of the stories. A few years later, I started The Epilogues of Sherlock Holmes, in NJ, and held a lengthier discussion of a story, based on the way Bob handled his meeting. I remember speaking with Bob shortly afterwards and he encouraged me to take the then bold step of using a discussion of the stories as the entire content of a scion meeting. I don't think I would have undertaken this on my own had Bob not told me it was the right thing to do. The group was a success and Bob and Terry frequently attended and were great participants in our conversations.
I also recall many small dinners and other gatherings just chatting with Bob. He was always smart, funny, warm, encouraging, welcoming, and just fun to be around. He had a terrific knowledge of all things Sherlockian, although he always downplayed that because of his innate modesty.
There are many Sherlockians who are well-liked. There are many Sherlockians who are well-respected. Bob was both of them. But he was also truly beloved by everyone who knew him. His passing leaves a great emotional void. Few like him.
"some really extraordinary stories" [STOC]Sonia Fetherston, BSI ("The Solitary Cyclist") has written an upcoming book about Julian Wolff, and in her research, she interviewed Bob Thomalen. Here's what she wrote:
Bob was one of the wonderful contributors to my book, Commissionaire: Julian Wolff and His Baker Street Irregulars (coming Summer 2020). I was privileged to interview Bob almost two years ago for that project. A great man, with wonderful stories to share. As we were saying goodbye I thanked him, but he insisted the thanks were all his; he said he loved reminiscing about the old days and he was genuinely concerned that he’d bored me. Nothing further from the truth! He was extremely interesting and, above all, very kind.
"quietly and discreetly" [3STU]In his role as "Cartwright," Bob helped with some of the administrative functions of the society. Part of that was the investitures — which he took seriously and guarded the information very diligently.
Julia Rosenblatt, BSI ("Mrs. Turner"), who was one of the first women to receive an investiture in the BSI in 1991 (you can hear Julia in Episode 103: Al and Julia Rosenblatt and about that monumental moment of the 1991 Honours List in Episode 89: The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes) remembers this particularly poignant moment:
As you may know, his wife did the calligraphy for the BSI investiture certificates. So Bob was one of the very few to know of Tom Stix’s intention in 1991 to admit women as full members of the BSI.
When I walked into the cocktail party, Bob greeted me with “Congratulations.” I had no idea why. I graciously accepted the congratulations and never gave it another thought. Bob was very worried that he had given it away. But since I had no inkling that it was afoot, he did not reveal anything.
"These modern gramophones are a remarkable invention.” [MAZA]Autumn in Baker Street is how we first got to know Bob, and it's what we talked the most about with Bob when he was on I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere Episodes 11 and 12. We've gone back and grabbed his interview and put it together in a new special episode:
In this episode, Bob also talks about his association with former "Wiggins" of the BSI, Tom Stix ("The Norwood Builder") and John Bennett Shaw, BSI ("The Hans Sloane of My Age"), as well as his own origins as a Sherlockian.
"capable of heroic self-sacrifice..." [NOBL]In that interview, Bob mentions in passing some of his other hobbies, such as magic. Tom Francis, BSI ("The Imperial Opera at Warsaw") reminds us of that hobby in one of the things he remembers about Bob:
Do you know about the time when he was doing mystery weekends and the magician set himself on fire? Bob grabbed the guy and put out the flames. Bob ended up severely burned. It affected him physically and emotionally.
He received an award for his bravery. At some function (BSI?) where he was being recognized someone yelled out, "Maybe next time you'll get the posthumous version." I used quotation marks but I am sure that is not the correct quote.
We have two fireplaces and when we had company people always enjoyed the fire so one time when Bob was here we lit the fire. He had to leave the room, the open flames made him cry.
He was crazy about clocks and had a ton of Holmes timepieces.
The bulk of my Holmes friends go all the way back to his Autumn in Baker Street meetings.
He was one funny bastard.
Here's a photo of one of the friends Tom made at Autumn in Baker Street, thanks to Bob:
|Mickey Fromkin and Bob Thomalen|
"a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt" [SCAN]Ray Betzner, BSI ("The Agony Column") brings us some very vivid imagery to complement the photo above:
This goes back to one of my first BSI weekends, maybe 1986 or so.
For some reason, John Bennett Shaw took a shine to me and at the cocktail party before the BSI dinner asked if I had any plans for breakfast on Saturday, the next day. I did not.
He suggested I meet him in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel at 8 a.m. with Bob Thomalen and that the three of us would have “an adventure.” Sounded like fun.
Bob, as was his custom, wore a full dress outfit to the dinner: tuxedo, but with a top hat, white gloves and a cane. This was in the days when tuxedos were still in the minority at the dinner. He looked like he should have been out dancing with Fred and Ginger at the Rainbow Room. He was courtly and friendly and, as the evening wore on, was also welcome voice of cheer at the dinner.
After the dinner, I found myself huddled into a cab with Ely Liebow and Bob Mangler and we went to the Iroquois Hotel (next to the Algonquin), then a bit tatty, but much cheaper than it is today. They led me to someone’s suite and a loud party was in progress, with Bob roaring through the crowd wearing most of his tux, but with the hat stuffed under his jacket and doing a Quasimodo impression for reasons that eluded me then and do so today. When I left at 2:30 or so in the morning, Bob was still going strong.
I got a few hours sleep and managed to get myself showered, shaved and dressed and to the Algonquin lobby at 8.
“Where’s Thomalen?” barked Shaw as I went through the doors.
“Let’s go, I have a cab. We can’t keep her waiting,” said Shaw with a sigh.
We went out into the frigid morning on West 44th Street, piled in the cab and waited for a few minutes. Finally John gave the cabbie an address and we started out. I looked back and just as the cab pulled from the curb, Thomalen came racing out of the Algonquin lobby without a coat and still in the remnants of the tux from last night. He started down the street at good pace and caught up with us at the red light on 5th Avenue. Puffing and a bit chagrined, he plopped himself in.
“I could use a drink,” Bob said under his breath.
“It’s 8 a.m.!” I said.
“And your point would be?” Bob replied.
Bob laughed. I laughed. Shaw laughed. The cabbie laughed.
On the way uptown, Bob pulled out a bow tie, cufflinks and assembled himself into a slightly less disreputable version of the man who had raced through the Iroquois suite a few hours before.
It was only then that I thought to ask Shaw where we were headed.
“Didn’t I tell you? Edith Meiser has invited us to brunch.”
When we arrived, she was welcoming to all of us, but especially to Bob, who bowed low, kissed the back of her hand and treated her like a certain gracious lady, which she was.
Edith served the strongest Bloody Marys I’ve had before or since.
I will never match Bob’s adventurous spirit, but I will always admire how he could be a bon vivant one moment and winking rascal the next. It seems to me he embodied the best of the BSI.
"the shoulders rounded and the body hunched" [HOUN]And now that we're caught up on our Bob Thomalen stories, here's that Quasimodo joke that Peter and Ray referred to. Bob was fond of telling this joke, and he managed to make it a physical one as well as verbal.
You have to imagine him going through the gestures, speaking in the accent, and throwing down the lines. Tom Francis has already agreed to retell this joke during the BSI Weekend, and we're sure many people will enjoy sharing it as well.
A bishop advertises a job to ring the bell in his tower. The only job applicant is a hunchback with no arms. Bishop: "How can you do the job? You can't pull the rope!" Hunchback: "I have a plan — but we have to go to the top of the tower, where the bell is." So they climb all those stairs to the top of the tower. Once they reach the belfy, the bishop says, "Okay, show me your plan."
The hunchback runs and jumps at the bell, smashing his face into it. Sure enough, he rings the bell. Despite his misgivings, the bishop decides to hire the hunchback to ring the bell.
Every day the hunchback comes in and rings the bell, hitting it as hard as he can with his head. Then one day, the hunchback decides to try to ring the bell even louder.
So he goes to the farthest corner of the tower, runs as fast as he can toward the bell, and jumps up and hits it with his head. The bell rings loud and clear, but unfortunately, the hunchback hit the bell so hard he's a little groggy. He staggers around a bit, and falls out a window to the street below.
A crowd gathers around the hunchback's mangled body lying in the street; the bishop goes out to investigate the commotion.
A policeman arrives and again asks: "Who is this guy?"
The bishop replies: "I don't know his name, but his face rings a bell."
That usually had everyone doubled over in laughter. Reveling in his audience's joy, Bob could never resist adding a coda:
The bishop is now in need of another bell ringer, so he puts another ad in the paper. The next day, a man (who has arms) arrives, claiming to be the hunchback's brother.
"Hi, I've come to take over my brother's job." The bishop offers his condolences for the loss of his brother, and then escorts him to the tower.
"Your brother used to ring the bell with his face," said the bishop. "Will you do that, too, or will you use your arms?"
The hunchback's brother replies "If my brother can ring it with his face, so can I!"
So saying, he runs full bore at the bell, glances off it with his face, falls out the window and to his death in the street below.
The bishop, horrified, rushes down to see what he can do for the poor man. A crowd jas already gathered around the unfortunate soul. Soon a policeman arrives and asks the bishop "Do you know who this man is?"
The bishop replies, "No, but he's a dead ringer for his brother."
Sherlockian or not, interactions with Bob invariably meant you went away with a smile on your face.
While we may never know another like him, those who knew him count our blessings and share those blessings by sharing our stories about him.
If you have anything to add about Bob, please consider leaving a comment below.
And as Bob closed so many meetings, we end this remembrance with Bill Schweikert's classic poem that Bob recited in the close of that episode above:
A Long Evening With Holmes
by Bill Schweikert
When the world rushes in with worries and cares,
And my problems and headaches are coming in pairs,
I just climb in my mind up those seventeen stairs,
And spend a long evening with Holmes.
The good doctor greets me and motions me in,
Holmes grasps my hand and lays down his violin,
Then we sit by the fire and sip a tall gin
When I spend a long evening with Holmes.
And while we're discussing his cases galore,
If I'm lucky there comes a loud knock at the door,
In stumbles a client, head spattered with gore
When I spend a long evening with Holmes.
Watson binds up the client's poor face
While Holmes soon extracts all the facts of the case,
Then off in a hansom to Brixton we race
When I spend a long evening with Holmes.
The adventure is solved, Holmes makes it all right.
Then, back to the lodgings by dawn's early light,
And a breakfast by Hudson to wind up the night
When I spend a long evening with Holmes.
So this modern rat-race can't keep me in a cage.
I have a passport to a far better age,
As close as the bookshelf, as near as a page,
I can spend a long evening with Holmes.