I got to know Bill Ziskin a little bit way back in the early 1990s when I was a sportswriter and he was an assistant football coach in the Schenectady School District.
He was one of those guys you liked instantly. While I hadn’t crossed paths with him for quite some time since my days as a sportswriter, as I covered more and more theater for the Daily Gazette in the last 20 years, his name kept on popping up in conversation, And it was always good. Then I met him again in 2015 when he was nominated for a Tony Award as an educator. Everyone seemed to like him, especially his students, both past and current.
An Amsterdam native, Ziskin passed away on Feb. 22 after a long illness at the age of 58. While teaching English and Theater at Schenectady High, Ziskin, also performed on the community theater stage. In 1998, he and Tim Dugan started up the Blue Roses Theater Company at Schenectady High, and with that success in hand the city school district felt compelled to create the John Sayles School of Fine Arts in 2004. Sayles, a popular filmmaker who credits as director and screen writer include “Matewan,” “Eight Men Out,” “Lonestar” and “Passion Fish,” was a 1968 graduate of Mont Pleasant High School.
In 2015, when Ziskin was a Tony nominee for the Excellence in Theatre Education Award, Sayles narrated a short film documenting Ziskin’s career and closed by saying, “I’m proud to have my name on the art and theater wing of the building Bill Ziskin works in every day.”
When I heard that Ziskin, who retired in 2017, had died last week, I reached out to Sayles for a comment and here’s what he had to say in an email.
“I was sorry to hear of the passing of Bill Ziskin. I knew him as a terrific teacher, using the study of film to open kid’s minds up to the world. He touched a lot of people’s lives in a positive way.”
While Ziskin didn’t win his Tony – it was a brand new category in 2015 – the nomination brought national attention to the Sayles School of Fine Arts, which under Ziskin’s lead in 2008 was one of five schools to earn a National Schools of Distinction in Arts Education Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts.
Earlier, in 2007, the Kennedy Center Education Network and National School Boards Association presented Schenectady with a national award for its support of high quality arts education.
A football player and class valedictorian at Amsterdam High School in 1981, Ziskin was a graduate of the University of Albany, where he more recently served as photographer for many of the Great Danes’ sports teams. Just last week, the men’s lacrosse team opened its season with a 15-9 win over Colgate, and after the game announced they had dedicated the victory to Ziskin.
The final play Ziskin directed for the Blue Roses Theater Company was a 2016 staging of the classic Harper Lee novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I didn’t see it, but I heard it was fabulous, and I’m sure it was one of Ziskin’s favorites.
For obvious reasons (we don’t want to discourage any young, aspiring actors with a negative critique), the Gazette doesn’t review high school productions. But we do take aim at community theater, as well as professional companies such as Capital Repertory Theatre, which often attracts some of the top actors in New York City to Albany. And Ziskin, it seems, was very good in some very good company.
In 1998, he was part of a professional and talented cast in a Cap Rep production of “A Christmas Carol,” including Larry Linville as Scrooge. In case you forgot, Linville played Major Frank Burns on one of the television’s greatest sitcoms from 1972-77.
Ziskin played the role of Bob Cratchit, and according to Gazette critic Eleanor Koblenz, the show, directed by Cap Rep’s Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, was a resounding success.
“True joy is present,” wrote Koblenz, “especially among the family of Bob Cratchit, played with deep sensitivity by Bill Ziskin.”
In February of 1999, before he got too busy with school theater, Ziskin drew praise from Gazette critic Paul Lamar for his direction of “The Glass Menagerie” at Home Made Theater in Saratoga Springs.
“Hats off to director Ziskin for the called-for projections and the affecting music, which created the atmosphere of this memory play,” wrote LaMar. “The 1930s were wonderfully evoked by the single set and the costumes.”
In 1997, Koblenz singled out Ziskin for a superb performance in Home Made’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” writing, “In a tour-de-force of character switching and costume changing, Bill Ziskin distinguished himself in at least a half dozen roles, including Audrey’s abusive, sadistic but attractive boyfriend, Orin Bernstein, DDS, who meets a hilarious end at the hands of Seymour.”
And in Koblenz’s top ten list of 1997, Ziskin again drew high praise for his work in the Schenectady Civic Players production of “The Crucible.”
“Arthur Miller’s brilliant work emerged as a moving human drama and powerful lesson of dangers lurking in the dark power of intolerance,” wrote Koblenz. “Simply but compellingly staged by Doug deLisle, and filled with strong performances, especially that of William Ziskin in the lead role.”
Like I said, a lot of people had a lot of good things to say about Bill Ziskin. He will be missed.