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The Many Roles of Hugh Palmerston, 1925 2000
By Jeff Kaliss
Actor Hugh Palmerston--a familiar figure on Bay Area screens and stages and Noe Valley sidewalks--reached the end of his adventures in this life on Dec. 12, 2000. He died at age 75, after succumbing to pulmonary fibrosis.
Lung disease had slowed him down in his final months, and quieted the force of his rumbling bass voice, but we'll continue to picture him ambling along 24th Street in his bushy beard and weather-beaten hat, looking like the mountain man he loved to be.
In fact, when many of us were exploring the back country of our minds, in the late '60s and early '70s, Hugh was camping out in the Sierras, living off savings and investments. The high country became a home, and a source of poetry, for a soul who'd been born in Cleveland in 1925 but had gone on to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Chicago before he'd reached kindergarten. Those who remember his critically lauded appearances at the Magic Theatre and Theater Artists of Marin probably didn't realize that his professional acting career had begun at age 10 in the Motor City, and continued through high school in Michigan.
After his military service as a combat engineer and radio operator in World War II, the GI Bill funded Hugh's studies in speech and drama at Catholic University. In New York City, where he met his wife Patricia Louise Hall, Hugh worked on and off Broadway, with directors such as Tyrone Guthrie, Sidney Lumet, and Bob Fosse. He also performed on three pioneering TV series: Studio One, Camera Three, and You Are There.
A national tour in the show Redhead introduced him to San Francisco, and Hugh and Pat subsequently moved west with sons Evan and Garth.
Their new digs inspired Hugh to familiarize his boys with the excitement of Boy Scouting and regular climbs up Mount Tamalpais. A few years after the birth of their daughter Jennifer, in 1969, Pat died, and Hugh fell into despondency. But his accidental "discovery" of the Noe Valley Ministry and its multitude of community and cultural activities soon revived Hugh's interest in drama. In the 1980s, he became active with the Ministry as an events manager, public relations expert, historian, fundraiser, and member of the church.
His poetry and prose also found an outlet, in the pages of the Noe Valley Voice. Among his news stories was a December 1987 piece about the renovation of the "queenly" Victoria Theater on 16th Street. Later, in September 1996, he codified the long career of Pastor Carl Smith, who founded the Noe Valley Ministry in 1977. Hugh's poem "Thoughts Along 101" appeared in the July 1999 issue.
After living above a storefront on 24th Street for many years, he took up residence on 30th Street in the mid-'90s.
During the last half of his life, Hugh starred in several major productions, including Breaking the Code at the Magic, Glengarry Glen Ross at San Jose Stage, Solzhenitsyn by Phase One Productions, and On Golden Pond at the Marin Theater Academy in San Rafael (he played the father). He also thrived on work in local and network TV commercials.
Hugh is survived by his sons and daughter and seven grandchildren. Family members, friends, and colleagues gathered at the Noe Valley Ministry for a memorial tribute on Jan. 2. Rev. Keenan Kelsey spoke for all those assembled when she described the longtime member of her congregation as "a true Renaissance man--Hugh was intelligent, curious, independent, private, stubborn, wonderful, loyal, genuine, spiritual, charming, frustrating, gruff, and gentle."
The reception that followed the service was graced by chocolates, one of Hugh's favorite indulgences. They were evocative of the wonderfully rich, dark quality of his voice, and the sweetness of his spirit. We'll miss you, Hugh.