An ‘iconic talent’ fondly remembered: Longtime leader of Academy of Music dies at 81

  • The Academy of Music’s former director, Duane Robinson, died this week at 81. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Duane Robinson, who was the director of the Academy of Music in Northampton for 35 years, stands outside the theater June 11, 2013. JERREY ROBERTS—GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS


Published: 12/22/2017 11:21:16 PM

NORTHAMPTON — During his 35 years as director of the venerable Academy of Music downtown, Duane Robinson always made sure that the ghost light stayed on — a single light that is traditionally lit in theaters so that the stage never goes dark.

“We used to do it every night,” said David Jenkins, Robinson’s longtime friend and roommate, who did maintenance work at the Academy for decades. “It’s supposed to keep the spirits in the theater calm.”

Robinson died at Baystate Medical Center at 9 a.m. on Thursday, following a massive stroke outside his apartment. He was 81. Yet, Jenkins believes that the Academy of Music has not seen the last of his friend.

“I think he’s gonna haunt that place forever” in a good way, Jenkins said.

Robinson served as director of the Academy Music for 3½ decades, beginning in 1971, shepherding the institution through some of its most difficult times as it went through major renovations.

“Duane was an amazing character,” said Bob Cilman, director of the Young@Heart Chorus.

Cilman worked closely with Robinson during when he served as director of the Northampton Arts Council. He said the Academy of Music wouldn’t be there without the effort that Robinson and Jenkins put into it.

He also praised how Robinson managed his team, and the family atmosphere he created.

“He really led a great crew,” Cilman said.

Former Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins also worked closely with Robinson, and offered similar praise.

“He was the face of the Academy,” said Higgins, who said that Robinson knew every board of the Academy’s stage, and held the place together for decades.

She also praised Robinson’s character.

“There’s nothing to say that’s not lovely,” Higgins said.

When recalling Robinson, a number of people noted his old-school way of doing things.

Michael Kusek, the former executive director for the Northampton Center for the Arts, recalled reaching out to Robinson shortly after he took the helm at the center. Instead of gathering around a conference table, Robinson insisted they have martinis at the Hotel Northampton.

“It goes down as the most civilized of all of them,” said Kusek, now the publisher at Take Magazine, speaking of the first meetings he had in his life.

Kusek also noted how Robinson kept the ghost light going and described him as an “iconic talent.”

For his part, Cilman recalled Robinson’s appreciation of old films and live theater, noting the statue of Humphrey Bogart he kept in the Academy of Music.

“He was a throwback to the old days,” said Cilman. “He’ll be sorely missed.”

Both Robinson and Jenkins were laid off in 2007, along with other Academy staffers.

Jenkins soon found work doing maintenance at both the Northampton Brewery and Edwards Church. Robinson, however, continued working at the Academy of Music as a volunteer.

“Duane loved the Academy so much,” Jenkins said. “He wouldn’t go away.”

Robinson hadn’t been working at the Academy for the last few years, due to his health, Jenkins said.

Jenkins and Robinson have been roommates since 1978. Jenkins said that he didn’t think he would have another roommate, but hoped that he would be able to stay in his current home.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz issued the following statement on Friday, in response to news of Robinson’s death.

“I was saddened to learn of Duane Robinson’s passing and offer my sincere condolences on behalf of the city. Northampton will be forever grateful to Duane for his long and loving stewardship of the Academy of Music Theatre,” reads the statement.

Robinson’s dedication to the Academy is perhaps most evident in the words of one who knew him well.

“There’s nobody that loved that building more than Duane,” Jenkins said.

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