Tom Helma, whose hundreds of local theater reviews in City Pulse over two decades offered insights into characters and plots that were influenced by his training and experience as a psychotherapist, died Nov. 21. He was 84.
His reviews could be withering. Longtime local actor Tod Humphrey recalled Helma’s 2005 review of “Macbeth,” staged by Sunsets with Shakespeare, as “blistering, funny and earned.”
In it, Helma wrote, “Tod Humphrey is Macbeth and did a decent job despite looking like Tom Izzo on a bad hair day and wearing a suit two sizes too big that Izzo wouldn’t be caught dead in.”
Jane Zussman, another well-known local theatrical figure, recalled Helma as “a true people-person… inquiring mind and dedicated reviewer/Pulsar judge, local theatre supporter.”
Joseph Dickson, a local actor, director and founder of the now-defunct Over the Ledge Theatre Co., remembered Helma’s “polite curiosity.”
“We didn’t always agree, but I never doubted that he listened, heard, and understood my view,” Dickson wrote on Facebook. “Tom enjoyed true dialogue, and my world will definitely be a bit less bright without him in it.”
Helma and his wife, Kathy, who survives him, served as judges for the Pulsars, City Pulse’s theater awards. They were married 47 years.
Helma is also survived by a son, Gabriel, and his partner, Chelsie, and daughters Faith Helma and her partner, Jonathan Walters, and Sarah Moore and her partner, Brian. The Helmas’ grandchildren are Braylon and Easton Kemp; Waylon and River Helma-Walters; and Indila and Ariana Moore.
Helma was born in 1939 in Hackensack, N.J. He moved to Lansing for graduate studies on a scholarship to Michigan State University. He earned his undergraduate degree from Bob Jones University. Helma joked to friends what an outlier he was at the conversative Christian school in Greenville, South Carolina, given he was raised in a Catholic family in northern New Jersey. But he said he needed the full scholarship.
Besides reviews, he occasionally wrote in a more personal vein. One such 2011 piece was on “Jersey Boys,” the musical based on the singing group the Four Seasons, in which he reminisced about being a teenager in New Jersey. At 18, he went looking for the club where Frank Sinatra first sang, then the next year, he recalled, “as music transitioned, crossing the Hudson in my convertible, over the GW — the George Washington Bridge — finding the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, standing on my seat, dancing in the aisle, experiencing my first major immersion in doo-wop rock ‘n’ roll.”
Referring to the role music played in racially and ethnically diverse New Jersey, he went on: “We all did sing: some in three and fours, often on street corners, under evening lamplights. We sang at Knights of Columbus and Labor Day picnics. I talked my dad and brother once into doing a doo-wop trio of ‘In the Still of the Night,’ decades before karaoke. I sang in junior high in a multi-racial quartet, I sang in that Catholic high school — both as an altar boy and in the choir — and, come to think of it, every day of my life since.”
Helma’s family has planned a memorial service on Dec. 8 at Palmer Bush & Jensen Delta Chapel. A viewing is set for 3 p.m., followed by a memorial service at 4 p.m., then a reception and “soapbox” from 5 to 7 p.m.
The soapbox is a reference to Helma’s efforts as the coordinator of “Soap Box Speeches,” a feature of Lansing’s old Renegade Theatre Festival. “We will have Tom’s soapbox and mic set up in hopes that others will share stories, poems, songs or other in Tom’s honor,” an announcement said.
Helma died after a brief hospital stay following a heart attack, which he wrote about on Facebook.
“Of a mind to report,” he said on Nov. 15. “I am in the emergency room after having suffered a heart attack on Tuesday. Tests are complete, and it looks like a catheterization of a blocked artery is scheduled for tomorrow. Whoo-hoo! Kathy says I am handling this well. Ha! What is the alternative? Life goes on, hopefully. Namaste.”
The next day, he added, “… and now we wait, having been in an ER room for a day, we are now in a regular room. Surgery will commence soon. About hospitals? 23 nurses attended to us the past two days, all good. As to blankets? Been here since the Civil War, clean and soft. And old. Namaste.”
He died five days later.
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