Singer-actress-comedian Carla Zilbersmith did her best not to let being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the progressive neurodegenerative disease, dampen her high-spirited sense of humor.
“For those of you who don’t know, I was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease a couple of weeks ago.... I hate baseball,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported the red-haired performer telling an audience at Berkeley’s Hillside Club in January 2008. “I’d really much rather have been diagnosed with a basketball disease. Maybe Wilt Chamberlain disease. That’s the one where you have sex 20,000 times and then you die.”
Zilbersmith, who maintained her sense of humor throughout the progression of her disease and inspired others with how she faced death, died Monday at her home in Berkeley, said her son, Maclen Zilber. She was 47.
“Leave Them Laughing,” a documentary about Zilbersmith by Academy Award-winning director John Zaritsky, had its world premiere May 6 at the Hot Docs international documentary festival in Toronto, where the “musical comedy about dying” won the Special Jury Prize for Canadian documentary.
“I’ve never had so many laughs with any individual as with Carla,” Zaritsky told The Times, “but at the same time, she was truly an inspiration for all of us.”
As a performer, Zilbersmith received notice for her one-woman show “Wedding Singer Blues,” which had its Los Angeles premiere at Upstairs at the Coronet in 2006.
In his review in The Times, David C. Nichols called the show “a festive satirical package” and described Zilbersmith as “a strong-voiced find with a knack for spot-on characterizations that recall Lily Tomlin, dialects, funny story lines and archetypes flying back and forth faster than a rogue garter.”
Zilbersmith began having problems with her legs and fell down a number of times in 2007 before being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease that December.
She retired in spring 2008 after 14 years as artistic director and coordinator of the drama department at College of Marin.
“She was an incredibly inspiring creative force on the campus and had a very, very strong following of students,” said W. Allen Taylor, who took over Zilbersmith’s position when she retired.
The last show Zilbersmith directed at the college was “War and Peacemeal: the Musical,” a loose adaptation of Aristophanes’ antiwar play “Peace.”
Zilbersmith compared the themes of the play with her battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“I am fighting a war, but it’s a war I can’t win,” she told the Marin Independent Journal in 2008. “Joy is being taken away from me, piece by piece, chunk by chunk.
“I can’t win it, but I can choose how to deal with it.”
That included formulating a sort of “bucket list” of things to do before she died. Among them: boogie-boarding in Mexico, visiting London, where she attended a performance at the Globe Theatre; and singing at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. (She sang after being carried on stage of the closed opera house about a year ago.)
Zilbersmith also wrote a funny and inspiring blog — https://www.carlamuses.blogspot.com — and conceived an ALS (Always Looking Sexy) 2010 calendar, for which she was one of 13 ALS patients who posed in take-offs of Hollywood movies. It reportedly has raised tens of thousands of dollars for ALS research.
Born Carla Anne Smith on Dec. 15, 1962, in Vancouver, Canada, Zilbersmith graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and attended graduate school at New York University.
Her 1987 marriage to jazz saxophonist Michael Zilber, whose name she merged with her maiden name to form Zilbersmith a number of years ago, ended in divorce.
Zilbersmith’s sense of humor carried her through to the end.
Before slipping into a coma, she sang a couple of songs for the family members and close friends at her bedside. The first was a variation of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” in which Zilbersmith sang, “It’s my party, and I’ll die if I want to.…" The second song was “My Way.”
Zilbersmith also wrote her own obituary. And with a nod to the mysterious Rosebud in “Citizen Kane,” it included this observation: “Carla never gave up hope that one day her death would be surrounded by a cloud of controversy and speculation. Her final words, spoken through a clenched jaw, were ‘oil can.’ ”
Maclen Zilber said he was not surprised by his mother’s unyielding humor.
“I think she just had an indefatigable spirit,” he said. “Even on the Friday she slipped into the coma, she said this has been the funnest, best day ever.”
In addition to her son, she is survived by her father, Jack Smith; her mother, Velma Cross; and two brothers, Steve Smith and Jason Smith.
Services are pending.